Morning mists roil just before sunup on this mid-May dawn, concealing the Mississippi River Valley hidden beneath. But by the time the sun gains the horizon at 5:45 a.m. as I turn off Highway 84 onto the former grounds of the Savanna (Illinois) Army Ordnance Depot, the mist has largely dissipated and the valley lies exposed.I am going mist-netting and bird-banding with Dan Wenny of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR) at the Lost Mound Refuge, located within the old depot grounds along the Mississippi River in northwest Illinois. The task at hand is to track bird species; today we are studying whether the grasshopper sparrow is increasing or decreasing on the sand prairie, in the former home of bombs.
It is an intriguing, exciting, and troubling place, depending on the story one discovers out here on the prairie. I could tell you about the Army Ordnance Depot, once employing more than 8,000 civilians at its peak during World War II, and then shrinking, edict by edict, until its closure in March 2000. Or I could tell you about the 9,000-plus acres of wildlife refuge harboring 46 threatened or endangered species of plants and animals and the largest sand-prairie remnant in the state of Illinois. There is a story to be told about 3,000 acres of beginning and potential economic rebirth. Or should I tell another story, this one about buried contaminants, an environmental cleanup site costing taxpayers well over $200 million?
Over here there are coneflowers. Over there you had better not step. Just where does the treasure lie, and where does one find poison?
This morning is pure treasure. Along with student intern Josh Conroy of University of Illinois-Champaign, Wenny is setting mist nets, wispy badminton-like nets strung between upright poles in thehopes that grasshopper sparrows will absentmindedly fly into and temporarily entangle themselves until the DNR specialist retrieves them, charts their measurements, and places an identification band on their legs before releasing them. For the prairie is returning, re-establishing itself on a unique ground, and Wenny wants to know what, in turn, is happening to the wildlife here.
But there are other intrigues to chart as well. What happens to a community when its largest historical employer-the government-packs up and leaves town? What happens when the government leaves behind an environmental mess and a cleanup process that is painstaking but slow? What happens when creative thinkers are unleashed to create a wildlife refuge and rebuild the economic base? And what if this story is played out time and time again at hundreds of closed military installations across the country?
The Savanna Ordnance Depot story begins after the onset of World War I. The U.S. Congress, recognizing the need for permanent war-readiness, authorized, among other facilities, a Midwest “proving grounds” for test‑firing weapons and artillery. In 1917, according to a study by historians at nearby Augustana College, the 13,000‑acre Savanna site was chosen for several reasons. The area was not adjacent to any cities, yet was only 60 miles from the Rock Island (Illinois) Arsenal that produced many of the large guns to be tested. The sandy riverside prairie was less agriculturally productive than the prevailing rich, black Midwestern soil. The river bottomland with its sloughs and myriad islands provided a buffer from river traffic, but the railroad passing at its eastern boundary would offer good means of importing machinery and resources and exporting munitions.
The base officially opened in December 1918, and the artillery began to fly. Many of the munitions fired were blanks, with a focus on testing the accuracy and distance of the weaponry, not the munitions. But some of it was live ammo, and not all of it exploded on impact. Within a year, the base mission changed to storing munitions, but the months of test‑firing had produced the depot’s first contaminant—potentially unexploded ordnance, or UXO—that still plague the base grounds today. Before any land can be cleared for private ownership or for public access, the land has to be swept and sometimes upturned and sifted for UXO.
During the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, the depot grew, with more than 200 warehouses built for housing munitions. More volatile munitions required over 400 “igloos,” i.e., steel‑reinforced cement bunkers shaped like domed ice igloos, each with a single vertical face for the massive steel door. The igloos ranged in size from about 1,100 to 1,800 square feet of floor space. Bulldozers plowed two feet of topsoil up over the sloping sides and roof, and grasses were planted over the tops to obscure the visibility from the air. One igloo blew up in 1948, leaving a crater 100 feet wide and 50 feet deep, still visible today. The blast registered on seismograph recordings 120 miles away in Chicago, and the Savanna and Hanover locals reported blown‑out windows and cracked plaster. The four‑ton steel door was never found. Local lore puts it somewhere at the bottom of the Mississippi.
And so it went out on the prairie, where anyone who didn’t want to work on the farm could usually find work at the depot, and many did both. Still, depot activity increased and declined according to the military needs of each era. In 1939, only143 civilians worked at the depot, but that figure rocketed to 8,500 by 1946. Thirty-six percent were female, the renowned Rosie the Riveters of World War II. Civilian employees lived in hastily constructed rows of apartments in the quiet nearby towns of Hanover and Savanna, or commuted from communities an hour or more away.
During World War II, the depot’s mission expanded to include production and recycling of munitions, and later included a training school for maintenance and handling of munitions. Depot employees prided themselves on their work; munitions shipped from the depot were stamped S.O.D. (Savanna Ordnance Depot), and soldiers frequently sent word of appreciation for the job well‑done. The bombs used in the Jimmy Doolittle Raid, the first U.S. retaliation on Japan after Pearl Harbor, were produced at and shipped from the Savanna Depot.
After World War II, the depot entered a slow decline, although each new military engagement produced a bubble of employment. The 1950s typically engaged about 2,000 civilian workers by the 1960s the number stood at 1,000, and in 1974 there were 750. In 1995, when the depot was placed on the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) list, the number of workers had dwindled to 450.
Clouds were gathering out on the prairie. In 1977, the depot was considered for closure, but local businessmen banded together and successfully lobbied Washington to keep the depot open. The inevitable finally occurred, however, when a new BRAC was formed under rules preventing individual bases on the list being “rescued” by Congress. The Savanna Army Depot was placed on the list in 1995, and final closure occurred in 2000.
The closing of the Savanna Ordnance Depot is just the tip of the iceberg. At least 97 major installations have been closed nationwide since 1988, each presenting some mixture of economic and environmental problems and opportunities. Indeed, the Department of Defense has completed 25 conveyances of land to the Department of Interior, totalling 95,088 acres, which represents about 20 percent of BRAC acreages. It would be easy for an isolated outpost like Savanna to get lost in the shuffle.
A drive‑through of the Savanna grounds today reveals a ghost town of abandoned military buildings here on the prairie, surrounded by farms, river bluffs, and the steadfast Mississippi River. Today I enter the grounds past the empty guard house, cross the railroad tracks into compound and find—mostly abandoned—the security office, fire station, NCO barracks, gym and recreation center, mess hall, bowling alley, commissary, theater, pool, and officers’ club. Environmental cleanup activities are directed from the Headquarters building, and new businesses occupy the ammunitions school, commandant’s and second‑in‑command’s houses, and a fraction of the 200-plus warehouses and storage buildings.
The impact on the nearby towns of Hanover and Savanna was muted somewhat because employee numbers had been dwindling for decades, and because many of the remaining workers were at or near retirement age. Still, the local populations suffered. From the 1980 to the 2000 census (by which time many workers had already left), Hanover lost nearly 200 of its 1,000 residents; Savanna, slightly larger, lost 1,000 of its 4,500.
But towns survive, and people find work. I met Marty Sheehy and Marty Altensey, two long‑time depot workers now employed at one of the first new industries on the grounds, one morning in March 2004. Proud of their work, past and present, they had stories to tell, building on and sometimes correcting each other’s memories. Sheehy, a 35‑year employee, dutifully crossed the river every day from Bellevue, Iowa, to work in the machine shop, where he eventually became chief of the Ammunition Peculiar Equipment (APE.) shop. A skilled machinist, Sheehy built APE. to test the shelf‑life of ammunition by exploding samples inside a safebox, X‑ray machines to test ammunition for defects, and hundreds more specially‑designed APE. for a variety of purposes. Today Sheehy works in the same machineshop for Stickle Warehousing, doing repairs and special orders for the business’ truck and ocean fleet and for other local businesses.
Marty Altensey, a 23‑year employee of the depot, had worked mostly in inventory and stock, unloading ammunition into igloos and warehouses, and loading it again onto trains and trucks for shipping. He unloaded mustard gas from the igloos when it was shipped to Colorado for disposal. He worked on the ammunition lines, retrieving usable TNT from old, obsolete projectiles for use in new weaponry. He drove a forklift, loading weapons for Desert Shield and Desert Storm. He helped detonate and destroy old, decaying weapons. Today he, too, works for Stickle Warehousing, one of the first fruits of economic recovery in the region.
Sheehy and Altensey are both ready to move forward. Even so, depot memories are never far removed. “There are still pictures back in the machine shop from the army days,” says Sheehy, “photos of people from back then, an old phone book. You come in to work, see the fire station, the two smokestacks of the factory areas, and it gets to you.”
Altensey agrees. “You get back in a storage area, you see someone’s name written on a wall and think, ‘I remember him.’ I expect to see a guard at the entryway. Now it’s like a ghost town.”
We load the DNR pickup with supplies for the morning’s mist netting. Poles and nets, charts for data entry, and Wenny’s fishing tackle box with its supply of leg bands, banding pliers for handling the tiny bands, measuring instruments, solutions for securing the leg bands, etc. “The guys at the hardware store know not to ask me anymore what I’m using the stuff for,” he jokes. “They had a field day when I said I was catching sparrows!”
Out in the pickup the windshield fogs against the morning’s still‑brisk air. We detour en route to the study area, around a “demolition circle” from the 1930s that is being cleaned of the contaminants left behind when obsolete weapons were disassembled, detonated, and sometimes burned. On the detour we pass hundreds of empty igloos. Today a deer races down from the top of one of the igloos as we pass.
At the prairie site, Wenny and Conroy set up about ten mist nets, usually around aromatic sumac bushes, where grasshopper sparrows often perch and sing. Most of the nets are set out singly in a variety of locations within a short walk, but two or three are set at angles to each other around larger bushes. The birds fly into the netting from their various perches and get entangled. “They’re easier to catch in early spring when the males chase each other around and don’t notice the net,” Wenny says.
Later in the season, Wenny uses “Frank,” a stuffed grasshopper sparrow accompanied by a CD of a male birdsong, to lure his catches. Other sparrows will come to chase it away, attack it, and get caught in the netting. “Frank’s had to be sewn up a number of times,” Wenny explains.
Wenny easily identifies birdcalls. “That buzzy trill is the grasshopper sparrow’s song,” he says. The prairie is seeing an increasing population among many of its bird species since the closing of the depot. The grasshopper sparrow, however, is in comparative decline, but ironically its decline signifies the prairie’s recovery. The sparrow, a short‑grass bird, was well‑adapted to the well‑clipped turf of the army days when cattle were grazed in and around the igloos to reduce the chances of prairie fire. Cattle grazing was discontinued in 1999. Since then, tall-grass species have been able to grow to full stature, and tall‑grass birds have increased in population.
The first bird entangled in the net is a male grasshopper sparrow, already banded in 2002. Wenny marks the location of the catch on his map, and then measures the bird. Wing length: 63 mm. The tail measures 45 mm, the leg 19.7 mm. He measures its fat deposit near the sternum: not much in spring, but by fall the bird will have stored up fat for migration. Its bill measures 12.7 mm in length, 5.4 mm in width, 6.1 mm in depth. Wenny puts the bird in a cloth bag and measures its weight at 18 grams. He checks for parasites and finds small mites on the wings, not unusual. He inspects the feathers (which wear down from abrasion, and are thus replaced every year), but these look good. He shows Conroy how to check for gender by blowing on the belly feathers. Females have a fleshy brood patch beneath the feathers that fills with blood when they are sitting on eggs, providing warmth for incubation. Finally, all measurements and checks taken, Wenny releases the bird, which flies off eagerly to a nearby sumac.
When the Savanna Depot was put on the BRAC list in 1995, the Army invited Jo Daviess and Carroll Counties to establish a nonprofit Local Redevelopment Authority (LRA)—following the closure procedure typical for the 119 bases boarded up during the 1980s and ’90s—to devise an economic plan for reuse of the land.
Environmental and economic interests often found themselves at odds in the early post‑military phases. Federal agencies have first rights to request lands vacated by other federal agencies, and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) initially asked for 11,000 of the 13,000 acres, reports Ed Britton, current district manager of the Upper Mississippi River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge. “This set off an anti‑fed atmosphere in the community,” says Britton, as people worried that economic interests were going to be squeezed out. Unfortunately, says Britton, the USFWS was between regional managers, and no one was there to explain that this was merely the first phase of a long negotiation.
Economic interests were hardly on the ropes, however, and the LRA hired a lawyer in its quest to obtain all the uplands as well as the lower post, where roads and existing buildings were concentrated. The first LRA board drafted an ambitious plan that included a mix of commercial development, golf courses, and upscale homes situated on top of the sand dunes adjacent to the river. Only 600 remaining acres were designated for industrial development. The Army questioned whether the reuse plan was doable. However, they recommended the LRA let the planning phase mature some and then resubmit their reuse plan within a year, says David Ylinen, current LRA executive director. Later, after the LRA investigated feasibility for major housing and green space development, they determined that it probably was too ambitious.
In addition, says, BRAC environmental coordinator John Clarke, standards for environmental cleanup vary according to the use planned for the land. A residential area needs to be “clean enough for kids to play in the dirt for twenty years and not be harmed.” Cleanup standards for commercial and industrial use are less rigorous, and for recreational use even less so. Thus the irony emerges that the excessive environmental contamination has made more lands available for the wildlife refuge.
A second early controversy between environmentalists and economic interests stemmed from members of the early LRA who supported building a prison on the depot grounds. According to Bob Wehrle, who describes himself as one of the few early LRA members who “took the environmental perspective to blend economic development and preservation,” the issue wasn’t whether a prison was appropriate use of the land, but where it ought to be located. A region on the southern end of the depot, or south post, had been identified for economic development because it already had some basic infrastructure, with roads, water and electrical service, and many existing buildings.
However, says Wehrle, environmentalists were stunned when former Illinois Governor James Edgar announced that the northern sand prairie would house what would soon be dubbed, derisively, as the “prison on the prairie.” The site selection was particularly distasteful to environmentalists, as it would not only destroy the rare sand prairie but would also disrupt the largest uninterrupted continuum of bio‑regions—from river bottomland to prairie to wooded blufflands—along the entire upper Mississippi River Valley.
Environmentalists suspected the motives of the prison proponents. Placing the prison in the upper sand prairie would remove it from the southern economic zone, whose development might be hampered by the inclusion of a prison.
But most of all, the three LRA environmentalists—Wehrle, John Rutherford, and Jim Rachuy—were dismayed over the process. The prairie site had never been discussed and agreed upon by the full LRA board. Soon another local resident, Harry Drucker, helped form the Friends of the Depot—which Wehrle, Rutherford, and Rachuy joined—and secured legal help from the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago. The environmental lawyers discovered that the original LRA director and a few additional members obtained and submitted application forms to the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) requesting the prison be considered for this site. Drucker says the Friends were “outraged that the decision‑making had been done secretly, behind closed doors.”
The Friends began writing letters to government officials and alerted the Chicago Tribune to the matter. The new revelations caused the governor to drop his endorsement of the prison proposal. The governor shifted the location of the prison site to the nearby town of Thomson, Illinois, away from the depot, but still within commuting distance for potential workers from the community.
At this writing, the prison has been completed for over three years—and stands empty, save for a single security guard, due to state budget cuts in prison funding.
By this point the original LRA had met an impasse between those members with environmental interests and those with economic development interests. For harmony’s sake, the Jo Daviess and Carroll County boards reconfigured the LRA membership, a move that had been planned anyway to transition from a “planning LRA” to an “implementation LRA,”—and the new board began making headway. A few more plan drafts were made and a few land trades occurred. The current distribution of lands was agreed to. Subject to environmental cleanup, the USFWS will receive 9,715 acres for the Lost Mound Refuge, the Illinois DNR 270 acres, the Army Corp of Engineers 145, and the LRA 2,930 acres for the economic zone renamed Eagles Landing Development. “Things are working cooperatively now,” says Britton, and those involved in economic development tend to agree.
Several economic ventures are already underway at the depot, and more are planned. One of the first developments was Stickle Warehousing, owned and operated by Rick Stickle of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Stickle made the first actual land purchase transaction at the depot. In December 2003, he presented Ylinen’s LRA with a check for $948,535 for 14 warehouses on 44 acres of environmentally‑clean property. Stickle also has a lease‑purchase agreement for an additional 200 buildings—mostly warehouses—on the depot grounds, about 100 of which he is currently using to store more than 6,000 truckloads of materials.
The operations have required significant reinvestment. Some of the warehouses lacked electricity, so Stickle installed lines and transformers to 50 buildings at a cost of $185,000, and then wired the buildings internally, repaired masonry, sanitized and patched floors, installed safety features and replaced overhead doors. In all, he has invested about $1.5 million in repairs and upgrades.
Stickle’s many business ventures include trucking, truck brokerage, salvage, commodity reclamation, and real estate. He also runs shipping industry businesses such as unloading ships at foreign locations, containerizing products for ships, etc. In addition to stocking the warehouses, he foresaw possible uses for the machine shop facilities. Being in the marine business (Sabine Transportation), Stickle can now bring ship parts here to be repaired. Previously he had to have parts repaired in coastal shops, which was expensive and slow. On the day I met Stickle, the machine shop was repairing a saltwater pump from one of his ships.
Another seafaring entrepreneur is Warren Jackman, a maritime lawyer by trade who started his international practice in 1951 and who has lived in the nearby Galena Territory for 20 years. Jackman’s office at the depot—located on the first floor of a handsome brick home formerly used by an army officer—is adorned with paintings and drawings of ships, sailors, and mermaids. But if his walls reflect his past, his thinking is poised for the future. The Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroad passes along the depot’s eastern boundary, and 68 miles of rail track wind through the property itself, a remnant of the days when munitions would be shipped in and out of the yard by rail. Jackman seized the opportunity to create Riverport Railroad, storing excess railcars for customers of the Burlington Santa Fe, and cleaning and repairing the cars that enter the yard.
But Jackman sees a bigger role for the railroad. “As I brought friends out and talked to them about the potential for the depot, it became apparent to me that the thing that would drive development would be the railroad.” Jackman envisions an international, inter‑modal distribution center in which materials might be delivered, stored, and shipped out again by truck, train, and maybe barge. Already Jackman has talked with businessmen looking to establish a transportation channel from north China to Portland to the Midwest. Jackman thinks that the Savanna depot connections could save three days’ transportation.
“Pacific‑rim businesses will be located here someday,” insists Jackman. He hopes to get the area designated as a foreign trade zone, where goods could enter and exit with minimal or no import/export taxes. Adding to the potential would be a barge port district. “We’ve identified an area where barges already come close to the shoreline and have looked at building a 200‑foot- wide channel off the river and into the base in an already‑disturbed area.”
Whether the Fish and Wildlife Service would be comfortable with this development of a riverfront section remains to be seen, but Jackman doesn’t worry about what‑if’s when his thoughts are still in the planning stage. Still, Jackman is radiant about the way that economic and environmental interests have come together since the early days. Regarding the refuge itself, Jackman says, “To me, this (development area) is a new city, and it happens to have a 9,000-acre ‘city park’ and includes 13 miles of Mississippi shoreline. It’s incredible! People say, ‘I want to see the river the way it was before development,’ and here you have it.”
Jackman has myriad interests and potential uses for the land, not all of them tied directly to economic development. He would like to see a museum featuring artifacts from the depot’s history, an art gallery, a home for the Natural Area Guardians (an environmental group particularly dedicated to prairie preservation), and a Native American interpretive center to recognize the history of the Mesquaki Indians on the grounds. He has discussed with prospective clients the possibility of building an observatory on the grounds. He envisions converting the commandant’s and second‑in‑command officers’ homes into inns. And more.
Perhaps the wildest and most out‑of‑the‑box development plan, however, concerns the igloo‑shaped ammunition bunkers out on the prairie. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, major financial institutions and corporations recognized the need to keep back‑up computer data storage far away from metropolitan sites, and Louis Goikas of Savanna Depot Technologies Corporation saw the igloos’ potential to meet those needs. Goikas plans to transform the old munitions bunkers into safe, secure, and survivable computer—data centers, connecting them to the outside world through fiberoptic cable and other redundant high‑tech modes. The igloos’ two‑foot thick concrete and earthen roof cover combine to produce a cave‑like, near‑constant year‑round cool temperature, perfect for computer facilities. And because the venture will have relatively low environmental impact, the USFWS agreed to allow Goikas’ project on the refuge grounds, epitomizing the current level of cooperation between environmental and economic interests.
Savanna Technologies, says David Ylinen, “fits the LRA mission completely. Goikas is creating a new business with new jobs. His business is environmentally friendly, utilizing the igloos that have been an impediment to both environmental and business interests.” Prior to Goikas’ project, no one was quite sure what to do with the igloos. They were expensive to tear down, and to do so would disturb the prairie as much as letting them stand.
Progress toward fulfilling the economic goals of the LRA has been slow, but appears to be gaining momentum. A property transfer agreement was reached in 2003 between the Army, the LRA, USFWS, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and the Army Corps of Engineers, outlining the procedures for prioritizing and approving cleanup efforts, which are necessary for any change of ownership to occur. Two months after the agreement was reached, the first property was sold (to Rick Stickle), and Ylinen expects perhaps three more sales in 2004. “Now we can move forward,” says Ylinen, and the LRA has begun working with a commercial brokerage firm to help market a portion of LRA unallocated property as a first class industrial park.
The LRA puts proceeds from sales and grants towards property improvements. Already the LRA has improved roads, but more work is needed to update water treatment and utilities. “We are a twilight organization,” says Ylinen, himself retired from a career at Motorola and who has found himself at the helm of the LRA since 2001. “When the last property is sold, the LRA turns the lights out and disappears.”
But that will still be awhile. Environmental cleanup is expensive and slow, and property cannot be sold until the cleanup on that particular parcel is complete. In the meantime, businesses can lease buildings from the LRA, but the lease path is confusing, with the Army as the landowner and the LRA as the initial lessee. Warren Jackman, breaking from his usual enthusiasm, says, “It’s hard to get companies to locate here without being able to get title to the property. You’ve got to be gutsy to come in here.”
Rick Stickle agrees. “Not many lenders will lend money for businesses because they are concerned about the environmental cleanup.”
Beneath the local optimism lies a persistent worry that maybe, just maybe, the dream will not come together as planned. Will location, government cutbacks for environmental cleanup and wildlife management, economic competition from the larger nearby communities conspire to scuttle the hard work and vision of environmentalists and developers alike. Chuck Wenstrom, of the Natural Area Guardians, says that he is optimistic, “but those concerns are also blowing in the wind and can be felt out on the prairie. Some days the wind and her song is bittersweet.”
And not everyone agrees that the economic and environmental interests are meshing as nicely as it would appear. Terry Ingram, co‑chair of the Restoration Advisory Board, worries that the igloo technology project may not be as environmentally friendly as perceived, due to the ground disturbance from laying fiberoptic line and the likelihood of frequent visits by technicians. He is concerned, too, whether rail‑car cleaning by Riverport Railway will create new environmental problems. Although it would have been expensive, removing the igloos and the roads connecting them would have allowed for a more complete prairie‑savanna restoration. And Dan Wenny laments that the best section of prairie is located within the LRA footprint and is slated for future development.
Even so, the general mood is positive that economic and environmental interests can cooperate at the depot. When environmentalists expressed concern that proposed gyroplane security flights over the server farm (computers in the igloos) would disturb rare birds in the fly- zone over the refuge, the plan was nixed. Jackman, himself a member of the Natural Area Guardians, says, “I don’t really believe that there ever was an uneasiness between conservation and development interests. It was simply that conservationists were not sure of what economic developers had in mind. What’s important is to have an educated dialog going on at all times.”
At the time of this writing, a new potential economic enterprise had just appeared on the horizon. The Savanna Depot had just come under consideration as one of three potential sites for an ethanol production plant. If chosen, the area could be showered with hundreds of new factory jobs, as well as managerial and engineering positions. However, the area will also likely be challenged with new environmental concerns. Any decisions about the plant are a long way off.
My own introduction to the depot occurred in October of 2003. Like many people who grew up within an hour’s drive, I had vaguely heard about the depot for most of my life, had read in the newspaper about its closure and about the plans and controversies surrounding its reuse, but had never set foot within these previously heavily secured grounds. Now the guard house stands empty at the entryway, but chainlink fences and warning signs still keep the public away from all but a few hundred acres that have been cleaned.
But today my wife and I are birding with the Natural Area Guardians. Most of the group is looking up—at bald eagles, Tennessee warblers, kinglets, turkey vultures, red‑tailed hawks, barn swallows, goldfinches, blue jays, and—everyone’s favorite—cedar waxwings. A few among the group prefer to lookdown, at prairie plants, delighting to show us Indian grass with its yellow tint; aster, looking like little white daisies; purplish little bluestem and big bluestem with its trademark turkey foot seedhead; prairie milkweed with pods about to let loose; mullein, a small velvety plant which can be used as a medicinal tea for respiratory problems or—depending on one’s needs—as a “poor man’s toilet paper.” One of the women crushes the leaf of an aromatic sumac to let me smell the mint‑like fragrance. But most startling is the prickly-pear cactus, unusual in this Midwestern climate but enjoying the sandy soil. The cactus, in October, is fruiting, bearing a grape‑sized fruit that one of the women says makes great jelly.
But I can’t keep my eyes away from the signs that line the roadway. In a grass field, amid some rail cars: Caution—Contamination Area. On a fence lining the roadway, in faded letters: U.S. Army—Danger: Keep Out. On the door of a deteriorating building, identified to me as the old TNT recovery unit: Danger—Explosives, Keep Away. And again: Restricted Area.
Damnedest wildlife refuge I’ve ever seen.
Army Headquarters at the Savanna Depot resided in a stately, though modest, brick building at the top of a small hill, situated next to the parade grounds, across from the depot health clinic and just down the blacktop drive from the commandant’s and second‑in‑command’s homes and the officers’ club. “Headquarters” is still spelled out in large silver letters across the front, but today the building is headquarters for the environmental cleanup effort.
John Clarke, BRAC environmental coordinator, shows me some photos of unexploded ordnance found on the grounds. The items are mortar shells that have lain unexploded since test‑firing ceased at the depot shortly after its opening in 1918.
But the UXO are just the first of the contaminants. Others are chemical toxins. For example, the buildings once used to recover TNT from obsolete and decaying munitions were washed down daily to reduce the risk of accidental explosion, and the resultant raw TNT worked its way into the shallow water table. The TNT “rides like a plume on the water table,” says John Rutherford.
Obsolete and decaying munitions of all types were safely detonated or otherwise destroyed in demolition circles. Again, the resultant ash has rendered the soil toxic. At the “old burning grounds,” munitions were burned in furnaces and the ashes dumped on an island in the river floodplain. “You can dig there and find ashes ten feet down,” says Randy Neyboer of the Illinois DNR. “Old photos show how the island grew in size due to the buried, toxic ash.”
Next there is the “hand grenade burial pit,” one of the more poetically named sites. But perhaps the most frustrating toxic site—now cleaned up—is one not in any way connected to the depot mission. In the early 1950s, says Clarke, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) obtained permission from the Army to bury 860 tons of a banned orchard pesticide (Dinitrolorthocreasole, a larvacide) on the depot grounds. The army dug a trench 250 feet long by 50 feet wide and 20 feet deep, and then hired three local high-school students one summer to slit open the pesticide bags, one by one, and dump them into the trench from the back end of a truck. The three teenagers, covered in pesticide and sweat, ended up in the local hospital with respiratory problems. This particular site was cleaned up in the summer of 2002, the soil removed and taken to an incinerator in Texas. The groundwater, which showed traces of the pesticide, will be tested again every quarter for two years to determine whether the water has cleaned itself through filtration, or whether further cleanup will be required.
More than 100 contamination sites of soil and groundwater have been identified, and a large fan‑shaped swath of the depot may potentially harbor UXO, having been within the firing range. Sixty-two million dollars has been spent on environmental cleanup since 1996, says Clarke, and his best‑guess estimate is that $150 million more will be required.
Clarke outlines the cleanup process as follows. First, due to a scarcity of records, the environmental team interviews former depot employees to identify potential contamination sites. A site investigation follows, and a soil sample is lab‑tested. Next, investigators determine the risks posed by a particular site’s toxin. If the risk exceeds acceptable parameters, Clarke will do a feasibility study to choose among a variety of alternative remedies for cleaning up a particular site, and finally, execute the cleanup, which may involve excavating the soil, shipping it to an incinerator, and sending it to an EPA‑approved landfill. The area is then backfilled with clean topsoil, and prairie grasses planted.
The process for cleaning up UXOs includes doing a visual walk‑over of the surface area, as well as using geophysical instruments (essentially metal detectors), radar, and sound instruments to detect anomalies underground or on the surface “that could be metallic, explosive, and worth the trouble to dig up.” The process, says Clarke, “is less of a science than is cleanup for other contaminants, so it is harder sometimes to get everyone’s agreement that a particular parcel is OK.”
Environmental cleanup is a slow process. Procedures must be agreed upon by the federal and Illinois EPA, and communication maintained with the Illinois DNR, the USFWS, and the LRA.
Economic and environmental interests both credit Illinois Congressman Don Manzullo, however, with having created a process that helps move the process forward. Frustrated by slow initial progress and the Army’s early reluctance to accept responsibility for cleanup of UXOs in particular (which are not considered a superfund waste), Manzullo formed a SMART (Strategic Management Analysis Requirements Technology) Team in August 2000 to help prioritize cleanup sites and to decide “how clean is clean,” according to Ed Britton. The SMART team includes members of the Department of Defense, the USFWS, the U.S. and Illinois EPA, as well as some local citizens. According to Britton, “With high-ranking members [of each of these groups] on the team, decisions made by the team would stick and not be overturned by persons higher up on the chain of command.”
Even so, cleanup efforts are further complicated by the availability of funds. “Funding depends on dollars appropriated by Congress and approved by the President,” says Clarke, who then points out that the Savanna depot competes with hundreds of other closed installations, many of which face similar environmental cleanup issues. And, adds Britton, the Homeland Security and Defense Act has put cleanup at the bottom of the list of priorities for the Department of Defense.
Fourteen million dollars has been appropriated for cleanup for fiscal year 2005, up from a scant $1 million in 2004. Bit by bit, section by section, the cleanup crawls forward. But Britton predicts it “will never be 100 percent clean. That’s the nature of unexploded ordnance.”
About once every half-hour, a Burlington Santa Fe train lumbers past the prairie where Dan Wenny and Josh are bird-banding. In between, the only sounds are the twitters and trills of grasshopper sparrows, eastern and western meadowlarks—all of which Wenny identifies with a keen ear—and the honking of some geese playing in a distant backwater.
There isn’t much talking. Wenny and Conroy are by nature quiet. Conroy, the junior from the University of Illinois‑Champaign who is majoring in integrative biology, came to his interest in birds when he nursed one back to health on his college campus. Wenny holds a Ph.D. in zoology from the University of Florida, and is now the avian ecologist for the Illinois Natural History Survey and director of the Lost Mound Field Station.
Birds are getting caught in the nets now as quickly as Wenny and Conroy can untangle, measure, and band them. Conroy takes a turn untangling the second bird, a male grasshopper sparrow, making slow deliberate moves as if untangling a fishing line. The bird is unbanded, so Wenny demonstrates how to slip the tiny white band over the bird’s leg and dissolve the slit in the plastic (“so the bird won’t snag the band and entangle its leg in something later on”) with a drop of acetone.
Wenny explains that 75 percent of male grasshopper sparrows are mated and territorial, guarding about a half‑acre site. Twenty‑five percent are unmated, and wander from territory to territory. Birds are mostly monogamous, though unmated males may sneak in from time to time. It is not uncommon to find at least one egg in a nest fertilized by a different male. Male sparrows are territorial, and have a slight variation in their songs. A male will listen, then, to see whether its neighbors are in their correct spots or are encroaching. In the spring, young males will come in and sing in different locations to see whether they’ll get chased out.
The third bird entangled is a female, identified by the brood patch on the breast. The female is taken back near to the catch site for release after processing, so she is nearer to her nest.
The fourth is a savanna sparrow, rare here, as this is the southern extremity of its range. Wenny invites me to release the bird from the bag when all the measurements are taken.
Fifth is an adolescent red-winged blackbird, not yet possessing the rich, red wing markings. The bird is common and is released without banding.
Next, a chipping sparrow, a small bird with a red‑brownish head. Wenny and Conroy search to find a small enough band.
Seventh and eighth, more chipping sparrows. “These will make good practice for Conroy,” Wenny says. One breaks loose from Wenny’s grasp before he completes measurements.
Ninth, a grasshopper sparrow.
Tenth, a grasshopper sparrow, one already caught and banded earlier this day.
Nets, fishing tackle box, and catch‑and‑release. Sort of like sky‑fishing.
Lost Mound Refuge—i.e., the 9,715 acres designated for the USFWS subsequent to environmental cleanup—is supposedly named for a mound adjacent to the premises that appeared on early maps and then somehow disappeared from later renditions. Local residents, however, say the name derives from Native American burial mounds on the same hills.
With 270 additional acres set aside for the Illinois DNR, almost 10,000 acres will be preserved in managed wildlife refuges. Much of the acreage includes Mississippi backwaters and islands, but 4,000 of the upland acres are home to Illinois’ largest sand prairie.
Ironies abound. The sand prairie made the land less attractive to early pioneers and farmers, which in turn made it more attractive for the Army in 1916 as it scouted land for a proving grounds. When the base closed early 2000, cleanup costs reduced the pressure to develop larger tracts for economic purposes.
Still, Lost Mound hardly signifies land “lost,” forgotten, or abandoned. The land harbors 46 species of threatened or endangered animals and plants, and includes rare sand prairie, sand savanna, dunes, tallgrass prairie, swamp, marsh, sedge meadow, sand pond, and blowout communities. Most significantly, the refuge contains an unbroken ecological continuum from forested bluffs to prairie to river bottomlands.
The sand prairie itself is an unusual feature in the Midwest, an area more usually known for its dark, rich soil. The sand hills—up to 70 feet deep along the riverbanks—resulted from an ice dam located 40 miles downstream on the Mississippi near the present-day Quad Cities as the continental glaciers were melting 13,000 years ago. The ice dam re‑routed the river’s flow through western Illinois and created a glacial river pool backed up all the way to Savanna. Meltwater entering the glacial pool dropped its sandy sediment—bits of rock ground up by the glaciers scouring across Wisconsin granite—at the pool’s headwaters. When the ice dam finally broke, the river re‑established its course, the pool drained, and great sandy bluffs and river plains were left exposed at Savanna.
Even before the military began its work at the Savanna Depot, early biologists were interested in the special features of the area. In 1908, Dr. Henry Allan Gleason of the Illinois Natural History Survey traveled to the sand prairie to photograph and catalog the landforms, plants, and animal species. His work provides contemporary biologists excellent comparative data. The sand prairie of Gleason’s day harbored far fewer trees than at present, says Wenny. The area has lost thirty plant species since the 1908 study. Grasses have declined, while forbs and shrubs, like aromatic sumac, have increased.
The changes are due to a number of factors. Fire, of course, is needed to maintain a prairie and keep the trees at bay. By 1908, and certainly thereafter, there was little contiguous prairie to sustain wildfires, and the Army, for understandable reasons, wanted to minimize the risk of fire in the ammunition storage areas. When cattle were brought in to graze the grasses, particularly around the igloos, one might have expected them to mimic the effects of buffalo, the other great maintainers of natural prairie. But, says Wenny, “cattle are wimpy compared to bison, and they seek shade,” and as a result they disperse tree seeds through their droppings, leading to more forest encroachment on the prairie.
Cattle produced another significant change on the prairie landscape. Despite the sandy soil, Illinois is a region of tall grass prairie, but the cattle grazing encouraged short grasses and kept the tallgrass species trimmed. When cattle grazing ceased in 1999, tall grasses made a comeback, and bird species counts began to shift back to those Gleason would have observed in 1908. Birds preferring shorter vegetation—the grasshopper sparrow, western meadowlark, killdeer, horned lark, and vesper sparrow—have declined in recent years. But birds preferring taller vegetation—the bobolink, henslow’s sparrow, dickcissel, northern harrier, and sedge wren—are on the increase.
Discontinuing cattle grazing was a first step in the prairie restoration. But is intervention intended to produce a more “natural” prairie itself unnatural? Wenny ponders the question, and notes that humans may have never even known a natural prairie, for many prairie fires were actually set by Native Americans to run bison into a catch and entice others back again when the fresh and luscious grasses re‑sprouted.
Even so, the goal of prairie restoration is to re‑establish a prairie more like the one observed by Dr. Gleason in 1908. Forest encroachment, for example, has been battled a number of ways, including girdling the bark of trees by cutting a circular swath around the girth to cut off the flow of nutrients between the roots and leaves. Girdled trees were left standing, in the hope that dead trees would provide good roosting places for birds. However, that approach backfired, as the roosting birds actually spread new tree seedlings through their feces.
Prescribed burns on the prairie floor would provide the best prairie maintenance tool, but that is a long ways off due to the UXOs. “Explosives and fire don’t get along too well,” says Randy Nyboer.
Still, the prairie and surrounding forest provides excellent habitat for all sorts of species. Two hundredthirty‑five bird species have been recorded at Lost Mound, including 118 breeding species, 107 species seen only during spring or fall migration, and 10 species present only in winter.
Lost Mound Refuge is a particularly important haven for the bald eagle, a species recently upgraded from endangered to threatened status due to a significant rebound in population in the past two decades since the pesticide DDT was banned. By the 1960s, the entire nationwide population was down to as few as 417 nesting pairs. During the winter of 2003–04, nearly 600 bald eagles were counted in the Lost Mound Refuge alone, and several year‑round nesting sites have been discovered.
Plant species, encompassing a wide range of wildflowers, include the hairy puccoon, Indian grass, June grass, porcupine grass, prairie dandelion, sour dock, little bluestem and big bluestem, prairie milkweed, mullein, aromatic sumac, prairie dropseed, James clammyweed, and as mentioned before, the most seemingly out‑of‑place plant in this temperate zone, the common— and fragile—prickly‑pear cactus. Indeed, the fragile prickly-pear is not found in any other location in Illinois.
Lost Mound Refuge is also a cross‑roads of species boundaries. It is a southern boundary for northern plants and birds, and a northern boundary for southern species. Similarly, it overlaps eastern and western species as well. The result is a particularly rich environment of intermingled species.
Illinois, like much of the Midwest, was largely a prairie in its natural state, with 22 million grassland acres. Today, only a fraction of a percent of pure prairie remains. Lost Mound Refuge will harbor 4,000 acres of prairie/savanna, though much of it dotted with warehouses and igloo bunkers. And with The Prairie Enthusiasts also buying lands and conservation easements on uplands bordering Lost Mound—and restoring those lands to prairie and savanna—a continuous ecosystem from the forested bluffs to the prairie to the river bottomlands has been preserved. Jim Rachuy explains that the area is large enough that “it won’t ‘leak species.'” He explains, “Think of a small island that is a completely natural place, but which has been recently cut off from the mainland. If the island too small it will lose species even without human intervention simply because it is too small to maintain a large variety. This is called ‘leaking species.’ You need a certain size of place in order to maintain the variety of species, and too often a piecemeal approach to preservation doesn’t preserve large enough spaces. Lost Mound and its adjacent grounds will be of a large enough size, however, to maintain its rich variety.”
Environmentalists are excited about Lost Mound’s future. The Audubon Society plans a bird migratory center here. Harry Drucker envisions eco‑tourism. A bike path may wind through the grounds in the near future. The Prairie Enthusiasts of Northern Illinois in partnership with the Natural Area Guardians will soon manage a 200‑acre prairie site on the DNR grounds.
According to Dan Wenny, “Lost Mound presents a unique opportunity to combine ecological restoration, biological research, and educational experiences in a way not currently available at any other site.”
Randy Nyboer thinks of it in narrative terms. “I want our children’s children to be able to see what the land was like when Abraham Lincoln lived in Illinois.”
Nyboer includes development in his vision for the ideal future. “We have an opportunity to make this a showcase. It takes a lot of effort and money, but I really think we can do it. It depends on people working together who want to preserve and develop the land. There is room for both.”
By 10 a.m. the mist-netting excursion is completed. Wenny and Conroy carefully slide the nets off the poles, fold them, and seal them into zip‑lock bags, as a knotted or torn net may cost as much as $75 to replace. I help by pulling out the poles and depositing them in a single location on the prairie, since Wenny and Conroy will return in a few days to do another count.
When we leave, I snap a few photos of the igloos, and imagine computers one day whirring away inside them while grasshopper sparrows go about their business outside on the prairie.
I take a few detours as I leave the depot. I drive slowly past Headquarters and the parade grounds, past the health clinic and the officers’ club, past the officers’ and the commandant’s homes, past the machine shops, fire station, and security house, and past the guard house as I exit.
I never knew these grounds when 8,000 civilians and a thousand Army personnel swarmed about. I never knew the prairie in its natural state or sailed the icy waters of a glacial lake. I never saw artillery fly or trucks dumping toxic loads into gouged trenches, and never felt the sting of panic when the nearby communities realized the loss of jobs. I never saw the exodus of military wares and munitions.
But you can feel it all here, feel it all. It’s out there on the prairie. Some of it is toxic, I’ll grant you that. But much of it, very much, is pure treasure.
“Base Re‑Alignment and Closure.” GlobalSecurity.Org. <http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/facility/brac.htm> 27 Sept. 2004.
Kunke, RuthAnne, Inga Olsen, and Ross E. Paulson. 80 Years of Service—Savanna Ordnance Depot: In the Defense of Our Nation. Augustana College, 1996.
“Lost Mound National Wildlife Refuge.” Illinois Department of Natural Resources & Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge publication.
“Lost Mound National Wildlife Refuge: Environmental Assessment.” United States Fish and Wildlife Service. <http://midwest.fws.gov/planning/lostmoundtop.htm> 8 Sept. 2003.
Reber, Craig. “Lost Mound Unit Makes Progress, Faces Challenges.” The Telegraph Herald. 27 Aug. 2003.
I would like to thank the following persons for allowing me to interview them, tag along with them on their work, and return with follow‑up questions:
© Kevin Koch