From August 2004 to May 2007 I commuted between Bloomington and Champaign/Urbana, IL. This 50-mile route runs primarily along Interstate Highway 74. 

My commute took me through a landscape that has been almost completely transformed by humans. Once a seemingly endless prairie, this region is now dominated by large-scale agriculture. Illinois ranks 49th out of 50 states (Iowa is 50th) in terms of remaining natural areas. Only .0007 of the state’s total land and water area remains as relatively undisturbed prairies, forests, savannas, and wetlands. Most remaining wild plants and animals have ended up in small areas that many would not consider “natural” at all. The thin strip of land beside the state’s highways, although far from pristine nature, has mostly been left to return to a relatively wild state. With nearly no other wild areas available, this area, called the right-of-way has evolved into a strange and unique habitat. 

The Illinois interstate highway system is the third largest in the nation, with approximately 1,900 miles of roadway corridor and about 135,000 acres of land associated with these corridors.  The realization that the highway right-of-way has some of the largest potential natural habitat in this part of the state inspired me to find out what was actually there. The section of I-74 along my commuter route was built between 1958 and 1965. More than 40 years with little disturbance other than periodic mowing and spraying of the area nearest the road surface has allowed it to evolve from construction site to wild habitat. I undertook this expedition to reveal, in a more intimate way than is accessible from our cars, some of the specific qualities of this roadside habitat. 

The first challenge was gaining access to the right-of-way, which is restricted to pedestrians. After conversations with scientists from the Illinois Natural History Survey and several letters and emails to the Illinois Department of Transportation, I got permission, assembled my gear, and began my expedition. I eventually walked both sides of the right-of-way between Bloomington and Champaign, exploring a little more than 115 miles over the course of 27 individual trips. What I discovered during this expedition was a strange environment filled with a surprising diversity of native and non-native plants and animals, all living under a constant barrage of traffic noise.  In this narrow strip of land where what many call “nature” persistently attempts to re-establish itself, the plants and animals appear to be adapting to a life squeezed between speeding traffic and the huge expanses of large-scale agriculture.

BD Collier