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Bulldozer plows through Bell Bowl Prairie as Rockford airport begins construction

Kerry Leigh, Executive Director of the Natural Land Institute, announces to crowd that emergency motion was denied.
Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco
Kerry Leigh, Executive Director of the Natural Land Institute, announces to a crowd that emergency motion was denied.

Litigation from the Natural Land Institute was unable to stall the destruction of portions of the Bell Bowl Prairie at the Chicago Rockford International Airport. The construction of a roadway over the rare prairie habitat began Thursday morning at 6 a.m. with a bulldozer plowing a path through one of the few remnants of original prairie left in Illinois.

Outside of the Winnebago County Court House in Rockford earlier this week, Kerry Leigh, the executive director of the NLI, announced to a crowd of advocates of the rare prairie that as it stood there would be no reprieve for the Bell Bowl Prairie.

“The motion to stay or to stop the bulldozing submitted this week," said Leigh, "has been reviewed and denied this afternoon by two out of three judges on the federal Seventh Circuit appellate court."

The NLI filed another petition requesting that all eleven appellate judges of the Seventh Circuit rule on the motion to halt construction. But the motion would not be reviewed until Thursday morning — and by then the airport had started construction.

“Let's hope the weather doesn't let them [start],” Leigh had said after the ruling came down. But the wintry mix in the forecast wasn't scheduled to hit until later in the day and weather was not a barrier in the morning.

The Federal Aviation Authority issued its long-awaited re-evaluation of the multimillion-dollar construction project at Chicago Rockford International Airport Friday, March 3. The sighting of a pair of the federally endangered Rusty Patched Bumble Bee back in the fall of 2021 triggered a multi-agency review of the project that stalled construction until now.

The roadway was originally anticipated to be a 60-day project set to begin in August of 2021.

Counsel for the Greater Rockford Airport Authority had notified the NLI that the airport could bulldoze portions of the prairie on March 9, less than a week away from the beginning of the endangered bee’s foraging season. The Rockford Airport declined to comment to WNIJ citing pending litigation.

Advocates of the Bell Bowl Prairie with handmade signs at the Natural Land Institute press conference.
Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco
Advocates of the Bell Bowl Prairie with handmade signs at the Natural Land Institute press conference.

A rare and ancient prairie

The Bell Bowl Prairie is a nearly a 5-acre high quality Dry Gravel Prairie on the property of the Rockford airport. According to the IDNR, there are approximately 25 acres of high-quality dry gravel prairies known to be remaining in the state. In 1978, The Bell Bowl Prairie was included in the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory (INAI), a registry of the highest quality natural communities in Illinois.

The inventory includes nearly a hundred different natural community types that in many cases operate as habitats for endangered and threatened species, distinctive natural features, and uncommon concentrations of native flora and fauna.

While INAI sites may be eligible for legal protection by being dedicated as a Nature Preserve or registered as a Land and Water Reserve with the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, the decision to do either is contingent on the INAI landowner. In the case of Bell Bowl Prairie, the Greater Rockford Airport Authority has neither dedicated nor registered it.

Section 15 of the The Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act urges public agencies to dedicate suitable natural areas under their stewardship.

The Bell Bowl Prairie harbors observations for the State-endangered Large-flowered Beard Tongue and Prairie Dandelion. In 2013, two State-threatened Black-billed Cuckoos exhibited breeding behavior at the prairie, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. A recent consultation with the IDNR determined that 10 different state threatened and endangered species may occur on the site of the airport's projected construction project.

David Stocker leads group sing-along outside of the Winnebago County Court House.
Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco
David Stocker leads group sing-along outside of the Winnebago County Court House.

Last words

In a statement sent to WNIJ, the FAA wrote that “Chicago Rockford International Airport will retain more than six acres of the Bell Bowl Prairie. This includes more than three acres of high-quality prairie.” The roadway being built by the GRAA over the Bell Bowl Prairie means there will be just shy of 23 acres of high quality dry-gravel prairie remaining in Illinois.

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.