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Rockford airport to begin construction over rare prairie this week

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

Last Friday, the Federal Aviation Administration issued its final evaluation which authorizes the Chicago-Rockford International Airport to construct a road over 15 acres of rare prairie habitat. The site represents some of the last remnant dry-gravel prairie left in Illinois.

Construction at the prairie could begin as early as this Thursday, March 9, according to Kerry Leigh, the director of the Natural Land Institute. Leigh adds that the NLI filed an emergency motion this past weekend challenging the FAA’s latest authorization to build over the historic Bell Bowl Prairie in Rockford.

“They could basically bulldoze the prairie in a half a day," she said. "And then they would do their construction of the road.”

The construction at the Bell Bowl Prairie is slated to begin a week before the beginning of the endangered bumble bee’s foraging season, which runs from mid-March through mid-October. The NLI hopes to have a decision from the court before the end of day Wednesday.

Back in August of 2021, a pair of rusty patched bumble bees, federally listed endangered species, were observed in the Bell Bowl Prairie within the proposed Midfield Cargo construction area. Since then, environmentalists across the state have mobilized to save the rare piece of remnant prairie.

This is only the latest litigation from the NLI. The organization's last lawsuit was dismissed without prejudice back in August. Before the end of the year, The Federal Aviation Administration and US Fish and Wildlife Service issued determinations that the airport’s project may affect, but is not likely to adversely affect, the endangered bee.

Leigh calls the rare habitat a piece of American history.

"When you go stand on an ancient, 8,000 year old, dry-gravel prairie, you're standing on the original America," said Leigh. "And this is almost all gone, because they want a temporary road. That road is not going to last 1,000 years. “

The Chicago Rockford International Airport declined to provide a comment to WNIJ due to ongoing litigation. According to the FAA, the Rockford Airport will retain more than six acres of the Bell Bowl Prairie, including just over three acres of high-quality prairie. That’s down from the original 15.5 acres of high-quality prairie.

The FAA adds that, “Any excavation and shrub and brush clearing work in the project area will occur between October 15 through March 15 to avoid impacts to the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee and avoid the prime nesting seasons for the black-billed cuckoo and the upland sandpiper.”

The NLI will be hosting a press conference and rally for the prairie this Wednesday, March 8, at 5pm, at Courthouse Square in downtown Rockford.

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.