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Citing safety and preservation, Rockford Airport to limit access to prairie during evaluation

Bell Bowl Prairie Outside of the Chicago Rockford International Airport
Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco
Bell Bowl Prairie Outside of the Chicago Rockford International Airport

The Chicago Rockford International Airportannounced on Tuesday that it is limiting access into the Bell Bowl Prairie until further environmental assessments can be completed.

The Rockford Airport Authority agreed to temporarily haltconstruction over some of the last remaining high quality dry gravel prairie in Illinois.

Zack Oakley is the airport’s Deputy Director of Operations and Planning. He says beginning this week, access to the prairie will be restricted until further notice.

"We want to make sure that the only people that are accessing that road and accessing that area of the airport are people that have business in the area," Oakley told WNIJ.

He says that decision to close off the prairie is due in part to the ongoing consultation with the Federal Aviation Administration, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and The Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

"...to kind of to further protect the area," he said, "and make sure that the assessment and the areas are safe and protected throughout the assessment or throughout the consultation process."

Kerry Leigh is with the Natural Land Institute. It recently filed a lawsuit to temporarily halt construction over the Bell Bowl Prairie. She says the decision to limit entry into the prairie makes sense in light of safety precautions that should be followed on a construction site. But Leigh thinks it’s not a bad idea for the airport to allow in a third party, like the NLI, to help monitor the prairie.

"So that we could kind of check and see what's there, how many acres are left, measure it, and then make sure that we can monitor it," Leigh said. "That's different, as far as I'm concerned, then just generally, closing the prairie to the public."

The Airport Authority maintains that there is currently no risk to the prairie because there’s no planned activity for the area around the prairie. The airport also plans to raise a fence within the next two weeks to further protect the area. The exact perimeter of the fence is still unclear.

The airport also ended any written agreement with the Natural Land Institute to work on the prairie.

It has come to our attention through a federal lawsuit filed by you, that the Natural Land Institute believes that it has some form of contract or agreement with the Authority as it relates to certain property owned by the Authority. The Authority is not aware of any written agreement between Natural Land Institute and the Authority. However, if any such agreement does exist, notice is hereby given that any such contract or agreement is terminated effective immediately. - Greater Rockford Airport Authority Chairman Paul R. Cicero

Leigh says there was a longstanding relationship between the entities.

"We have had a verbal agreement with them for several decades now, for managing the prairie," Leigh said. "And we've conducted prescribed burns out there on workdays with a whole bunch of partners taking equipment out there."

Leigh says that there’s a fundamental misunderstanding: The Natural Land Institute isn’t against expansion at the airport, it’s just trying to find a way against expansion over the prairie.

"We think they probably need a road," Leigh said. "But it doesn't have to go through the heart of the high quality prairie. So we're not trying to stop a road. We just want to stop that road configuration and have a new configuration of the road so that it can avoid the prairie."

In the meantime, the future of the Bell Bowl Prairie is still uncertain. Oakley says airport officials will abide by whatever resolution the Federal Aviation Administration and the US Fish and Wildlife Service come to next spring.

"Our plan remains unchanged," he said on Tuesday. "The detention basin was removed from this development cycle. So it's not part of it. Outside of that. Everything else remains as planned."

Including -- for now -- the road through the prairie.

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.