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Rockford Airport suspends construction at Bell Bowl Prairie

Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco

Just a day after the Natural Land Institute filed a lawsuit, Chicago Rockford International Airport officials announced that it is in the process of redesigning a portion of its expansion project that threatened one of the last pieces of original prairie left in Illinois.

According to a news release issued Thursday, the authority that runs the airport says construction scheduled to begin Nov. 1 will be suspended within the Bell Bowl Prairie until Federal Aviation Administration "consultation activities" with the US Fish & Wildlife Service conclude.

It also says the airport will remove a detention basin from the expansion project that was originally planned to go in the Bell Bowl Prairie. The release says the capacity of the planned Bell Bowl Prairie detention basin will be replaced by other planned basins on airport grounds.

“During the coming months, we will continue to work with the FAA, IDNR, and the USFWS to ensure the project continues and we can plan and develop in compliance with the federal and state regulations for the endangered species,” said Zack Oakley, the Deputy Director of Operations and Planning at RFD, in a statement quoted in the release.

“The FAA is reinitiating consultation under the Endangered Species Act with the USFWS to evaluate impacts to the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee, so planned construction initially scheduled to continue on November 1 will be suspended until further consultation is completed. We anticipate the resumption of the project in the spring of 2022.”

In the release, the airport authority says the $50 million dollar cargo expansion is estimated to create hundreds of construction jobs and 600 permanent new jobs at the airport.

Critics of the expansion plan gather on Oct. 28
Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco
Critics of the expansion plan gather on Oct. 28

Over the past few months, critics of the plan said the expansionwould destroysome of the last remaining high-quality prairie in the state of Illinois.

On Thursday, around the same time the airport authority issued its release, environmental advocates gathered calling for the construction to halt.

One of those in attendance, Jessie Crow Mermel, was pleased but guarded in reaction to the news of the airport authority's announcement. "I hope that they take some meaningful action," she said, "and that this isn't just lip service, but that you know that this is meaningful."

A news release Thursday evening from the Natural Land Institute also took a guarded tone, emphasizing that an agreement with the Airport Authority through the U.S. District Court would only temporarily halt development and construction, until March 1, 2022. The Natural Land Institute said that buys time to work with the airport on alternative designs to protect the remaining prairie and the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee, but it's not enough time to determine if the endangered bee nests on the site.

The Natural Land Institute said the announcement from airport officials didn't address a planned roadway and building. The group said it "will continue to pursue legal remedies to protect the remaining prairie and make sure we have access to monitor the prairie."