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Construction at Bell Bowl Prairie halted until June

"Prairie Watch Dogs" outside of the Bell Bowl Prairie
Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco
"Prairie Watch Dogs" outside of the Bell Bowl Prairie

Construction at the Bell Bowl Prairie is stalled again until June. Still, a group of local environmentalists aren’t willing to risk any last minute changes.

A small group of committed conservationists have been monitoring the Bell Bowl Prairie since the fall.

That’s when the Chicago Rockford International Airport agreed to suspend a segment of a $50 million dollar expansion. Jessie Crow Mermel is among the so called “prairie watchdogs”

“We have just amped up our efforts on monitoring the prairie,” said Crow Mermel. “There are folks kind of driving by on Beltline Road and paying attention to see if all the construction equipment that's out here is on the move.”

Only about 25 acres of high-quality dry gravel prairies remain in Illinois, and the Bell Bowl Prairie contains some of the state’s last. The prairie is also home to rare native plant and animal species including the large-flowered beard tongue, the prairie dandelion, and the rusty patched bumble bee.

Still, Crow Mermel says construction updates since the fall have been scarce. And Kerry Leigh with the Natural Land Institute doesn’t disagree. The organization filed a lawsuit in the fall in an effort to halt construction at the prairie.

“So there is a lot of confusion and the airport is continuing to foster this confusion,” said Leigh.

Crow Mermel adds that it is hard to overstate the value of preserving an ecological site like Bell Bowl Prairie.

“The airport keeps referring to it as just midfield or a patch of grass. And it's an incredibly rare piece of land,” said Crow Mermel. “It's older than the pyramids. It's really like having the redwood trees here in the state of Illinois.”

The Federal Aviation Administration confirms that the Airport Authority has made a commitment to halt construction work until June 1.

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.