Following a nine-year restoration effort, the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission has designated 918 acres at the intersection of Flossmoor Road and Central Avenue as the Bobolink Meadow Land and Water Reserve.
The land is owned by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County and was restored by the non-profit Openlands, a conservation organization as part of the forest preserve's Next Century Conservation Plan.
The designation — awarded on May 9 — is not only the "highest form of protection" for a piece of land but also indicates that it contains the highest quality of plant and animal habitat, said Emy Brawley, Openlands' vice president of conservation.
Bobolink Meadow is south of 183rd Street, east of Ridgeland Avenue, spanning the north side of Flossmoor Road, on both sides of Central Avenue, and includes land at the southeast corner of that intersection. It straddles Tinley Park, Flossmoor and Country Club Hills.
"This is a life raft for a species that is declining," Brawley said, referring to the bobolink and other grassland birds that need vast expanses of open land to breed. These birds have faced a "steep decline globally" and are in the greatest need of conservation, she said.
Adjoining the Bobolink Meadow, on the south side of Flossmoor Road, is the 585-acre Bartel Grassland and given its proximity to the 898-acre Orland Grassland, all three make up a 2,400 acre network of Land and Water Reserves, she said.
"By identifying and restoring conservation areas in proximity to one another like these, we create the habitat on the scale needed for wildlife to thrive," she said.
Bobolink Meadow is home to the second largest bobolink population in Illinois, (the largest is Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie) and it is among the state's largest Land and Water Reserves, she said.
As funding allows, Openlands has taken these parcels and other lands and turned them into high quality habitats, all part of a series of initiatives in the south suburban area, said Joe Roth, director of restoration programs at Openlands.
At Bobolink, they have observed 157 species of nesting, 84 of which are breeding on site, and migratory birds, like the short-eared owl and the Northern Harrier.
"It's a great place for bird watchers," he said.
The restoration work at Bobolink Meadow was funded through the O'Hare Modernization Mitigation Account (OMMA). The expansion of O'Hare Airport impacted wetlands, and Chicago had to compensate for that by setting aside funds for wetlands elsewhere, Brawley said.
The nine-year effort included disabling 15 linear miles of abandoned drain tiles and bringing water back to the site, Roth said.
Since Bobolink Meadow and Bartel Grassland are at the top of the Des Plaines River Watershed, "if we can stop the water here, it will benefit people and property downstream," he said, adding that it includes Hickory Creek, which feeds into the Des Plaines River.
They also removed invasive species and did controlled burns to spur the growth of prairie grasses.
Openlands put in native plants and removed trees to rebuild the grasslands that were here before the area was settled, he said.
"We wanted to take this back to its native landscape — prairie and grassland as far as the eye can see," he said.
In addition to creating an ideal environment for grassland birds, the land also is becoming a home to pollinators, such as the Monarch butterfly, Roth said.
Openlands will continue to monitor and count species, and is responsible for maintaining the site for the next five years, to "make sure it continues to improve," Brawley said.
The LWR designation also restricts how the land can be used.
Roth said the forest preserve district has reserved the option of adding a trail along the perimeter of the property, but there are no plans to add trails within the Bobolink Meadow.
There is a steel bridge on the site over the restored wetlands, and Roth said the forest preserve district will eventually create a walkway over the bridge to a seating area, where people can watch the birds and view the grassland.
In a news release, Arnold Randall, general superintendent of the forest preserves, said he appreciates the "partnership with Openlands, and their dedication to conserving and restoring land in Cook County. This project is helping us achieve one of our Next Century Conservation Plan goals of restoring 30,000 acres, in addition to adding to the amount of land that is designated as a Land and Water Reserve."
Public access to the site is via the parking lot on the north side of Flossmoor Road at Killdeer Wetlands.