Protecting the Savanna Prarie

Stopping the proposed “prison on the prairie” at the Savanna Army Depot was one of the biggest wins in a long time for Illinois conservationists.

The Savanna Army Depot sits on the shores of the Mississippi River in Northwestern Illinois, and it had been used to store ammunition and old armaments since World War I. Only a small portion of the 10,000 acres had actually been used; most of it was open sand prairie — home to endangered plants and species — that had remained relatively untouched.

When Congress decided to close this Army base, the State of Illinois and local officials negotiated with the U.S. Department of Army and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to preserve approximately 8,000 acres as conservation areas. But then the Local Redevelopment Authority in Northwestern Illinois negotiated with the Illinois Department of Conservation to site a new maximum-security prison on the Depot that would fragment the sand prairie eco-system.

The Friends of the Depot, a local conservation group, The Nature Conservancy, and others came to ELPC asking for our help to stop the “prison on the prairie” and create pressure for an alternative prison site.

In a remarkable blitzkrieg over a two-month period. ELPC’s legal, media and strategic capabilities were brought to bear in effective combination with very strong local organizing work, and the coordinated and cooperative efforts of The Nature Conservancy, Friends of the Depot and others.

The Result

In July 1998, Governor Edgar pulled the plug on the “prison on the prairie” and announced that he would support its relocation to an alternative site several miles away that the Director of the Illinois Department of Corrections characterizes as the best site for a prison he had ever seen. The conservation values were protected, and the prison’s economic development benefits were achieved.