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Environmentalists take aim at Pritzker campaign ad

Outside the Chicago-Rockford International Airpot
Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco
Outside the Chicago-Rockford International Airport

A recent gubernatorial ad aimed at highlighting the growth at Chicago-Rockford International Airport touched the nerve of local environmental advocates fighting to preserve an ancient prairie.
Do you know what city has the largest growing cargo airport in the world? 

From the ad: "It's right here in Illinois. Rockford, Illinois! and Governor J.B. Pritzker helped make it happen.... the upcoming expansion will create hundreds of new jobs across Illinois."

That’s from one of Governor J.B. Pritzker’s new ad campaign which touts the growing air freight business in northern Illinois. It may also have inadvertently centered him in a months-long battle over the fate of one of the state’s last remaining remnant prairies.

It’s the mention of the controversial expansion at the Chicago-Rockford International Airport that has local environmental advocates like Jillian Neece disappointed with the priorities of the governor's re-election campaign. 
"His campaign in that advertisement really missed out on an opportunity to highlight the importance and the value of Bell Bowl Prairie," said Neece."Which they made a conscious decision not to do."

The Bell Bowl Prairie is a rare, nearly 5-square-mile patch of remnant dry gravel prairie on the airport’s property. And, up until last fall that prairie was squarely in the cross-hairs of the airport’s first phase of a 280-acre expansion plan, which had a road scheduled to run through the prairie.

Zack Oakley is the Director of Operations and Planning at the airport. He says that the road was initially meant to be completed in about 2 months. So far it’s been 7 and counting.

"That was about the same time as the report of the bumblebee being found on site, which, obviously started us down a different road," said Oakley.

The sighting of the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee, a federally endangered species, halted all construction in the area until Nov. 1, 2021 when the bee foraging season was over.

That was followed by a lawsuit filed by the Natural Land Institute against the airport and several other defendants claiming the expansion plan failed to comply with the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Act.

The airport released a statement that construction over the prairie would be halted again until an endangered species consultation with federal agencies including the Fish and Wildlife Service wrapped up.

Oakley says that’s pretty much where things still stand. "It still sits there. Still going through that process right now," said Oakley. "And obviously, until that process is complete and approvals are granted, there will be no construction taking place of that roadway that would affect the prairie."
To date, the Greater Rockford Airport Authority has agreed that construction work will not begin before June 1, 2022.

Local environmental advocates aren’t taking the reprieve lightly– they’re attending Airport Authority board meetings, hosting vigils, and taking every opportunity to talk about prairies.

Earlier this week, following the Pritzker ad, Neece says an organization called Rising Tides Chicago staged a “Save Bell Bowl Prairie Twitter Storm & Phone Zap” aimed at the governor.

"So people all day long were calling his office and tweeting at him to make sure that he knows that Bell Bowl Prairie is an issue that's not going to be going away and that people are really passionate about," said Neece.

Neece says the campaign to Save Bell Bowl Prairie has five more events planned this month, and more to come. All of which can be found on the Save The Bell Bowl Prairie website and Facebook group of the same name, which now has more than 4,000 members.

Public records released to WNIJ revealed that the airport authority spent over $10,000 last year to raise a fence around the prairie. At any rate, Neece says it’s not too late for the governor to change course.

"We're a lot of individual people and groups against this really big airport," said Neece. "So we need all the help that we can get, and we think that Pritzker definitely could be doing more to help us out."

WNIJ reached out to Pritzker’s re-election campaign about the controversy surrounding the ad. In response, the campaign stated that “The governor’s new ad celebrating Rockford being home to fastest growing cargo airport in the world does not indicate a shift in any previously held positions. Economic development and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive, and the governor has demonstrated a strong commitment to both. As he said in November, we can protect our environment, while also creating jobs.

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.