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Conservationists look for alternatives and call on politicians to help protect prairie from airport expansion

Outside of the Bell Bowl Prairie
Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco
Outside of the Bell Bowl Prairie

The Rockford Airport Authority will begin construction next month on a road over the Bell Bowl Prairie.

LISTEN: The 21st Show talks with Jack Darrin, Chapter Director at Sierra Club Illinois and Kerry Leigh, Executive Director of Natural Land Institute

Conservationists have been organizing for weeks against the project.They’ve formulated some possible alternatives for the airport expansion that could save some of the last remaining remnant prairie in the state.

LEARN MORE: Rusty Patched Bumble Bee Stalls Construction over Bell Bowl Prairie

Domenico D’Alessandro is a retired landscape architect. He says there may be a solution that satisfies both economic and environmental considerations.

“That road can be easily realigned to go around the prairie and still maintain the same service,” D’Alessandro said. “It's not hard to build roads. They do it all the time.”

He’s even drawn up his plan to present to the airport authority. But so far, airport officials are staying mum.

“I'm not sure why six or seven people have so much power over the future of this community,” D’Alessandro said. “Things can be done so much better just by opening their minds and accepting the technologies that we have available today to do a better job.”

Construction at the Bell Bowl Prairie is slated to begin on Nov. 1st.

Meantime, conservationists are also encouraging residents to reach out to elected officials. WNIJ has been asking elected officials who represent portions of northern Illinois for their thoughts on the airport project.

Aprel Prunty is the alderwoman for the area.

“I'm sensing that people do have strong opinions about it,” Prunty said. “I can tell you that from an Alderman’s point of view, we really don't have say in it.”

Provided statements to WNIJ

U.S. Congresswoman Cheri Bustos:

"I have long been a proud supporter of the Chicago Rockford International Airport -- it is a critical part of Rockford's economic success and future development. However, as development continues, we must protect the surrounding environment. I'm glad steps were taken to protect endangered species that could be in the area and support efforts to move forward in a responsible manner."

Illinois Representative Joe Sosnowski:

“The Bell Bowl Prairie is one of the last Dry Gravel Prairies in Illinois and is home to the federally-listed endangered Rusty-Patched Bumble Bee. The expansion of the Rockford Airport will put both the Prairie and the Bumble Bee at risk. I reached out to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) to see what could be done to protect these rare pieces of nature. In response, they have offered recommendations regarding the endangered Rusty-Patched Bumble Bee and Bell Bowl Prairie. I am hopeful that the IDNR, the federal government, and the Rockford International Airport will do their part to avoid or minimize any negative impacts the expansion may have.”

Illinois Senator Steve Stadelman:

"I've been working to clarify issues surrounding the native prairie as part of the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory and to confirm that applicable state regulations are being satisfied. I'll continue in my efforts to address the concerns of those who are committed to preserving our natural history but also to provide for the expansion needs of the Chicago Rockford International Airport as a major source of jobs and economic growth for our region."

Statement requested by WNIJ but no comment yet:

Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker

Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara (The mayor makes appointments to the Greater Rockford Airport Authority board)

Illinois Representative Maurice West

U.S. Senator Dick Durbin

U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth

Juanpablo covers environmental, substandard housing and police-community relations. He’s been a bilingual facilitator at the StoryCorps office in Chicago. As a civic reporting fellow at City Bureau, a non-profit news organization that focuses on Chicago’s South Side, Ramirez-Franco produced print and audio stories about the Pilsen neighborhood. Before that, he was a production intern at the Third Coast International Audio Festival and the rural America editorial intern at In These Times magazine. Ramirez-Franco grew up in northern Illinois. He is a graduate of Knox College.