Sod rescue operation of Bell Bowl Prairie underway by Winnebago Forest Preserves
In Rockford, an operation to salvage plant life that remains from the demolition at Bell Bowl Prairie is currently underway.
The Forest Preserves of Winnebago County, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission coordinated with the airport to transport the soil from the destroyed portion of the Bell Bowl Prairie to the Cedar Cliff Nature Preserve nearby.
Last week, The Forest Preserves of Winnebago County began the operation and retrieved 20 dump trucks worth of soil — approximately 150 yards of material from the site at the Rockford Airport. According to Mike Brien with the Forest Preserves, the goal is to give what remains of Bell Bowl Prairie a second life.
“So there's still lots of biota that's present there. You know, there's bacteria, there's mycorrhizal fungi,” said Brien. “There's a seed bank there. So, by getting that out into our restorations, it'll enhance, kind of, those prairie plantings we have out there.”
The transported soil comes from the highest quality portion of Bell Bowl Prairie. According to the FAA, some three acres of high-quality prairie still remain under the ownership of the Greater Rockford Airport Authority.
The sod rescue operation was originally slated to begin in the days after the remnant prairie was bifurcated but was postponed for about three weeks due to weather conditions.
A last-ditch effort
Volunteers sifted through the piles of dirt looking for any sign of life in the sod and roots, which will then find a new home at the Cedar Cliff Forest Preserve — just a five-minute drive southwest of the 6 acres — now split down the middle — that remains of Bell Bowl Prairie.
Jillian Neece, an environmentalist and advocate of bell bowl prairie, spent nearly two years trying to prevent this exact outcome. All the same, Neece thinks of this work as an extension of her previous efforts to save the rare dry-gravel prairie.
“For a long time, this was our worst-case scenario: having to do plant rescue kinds of things and trying to salvage something after the fact,” said Neece. “But now that that's the situation we're in, the fight has kind of changed. So, the fight to save the prairie isn't over; it has shifted into something else.”
Restoration researcher and artist, Liz Anna Kozik, plucks loose roots from the soil and tucks them away safely into plastic containers. “There's a whole variety of plants here," she said. "A lot of them appear to be grasses, but some of them appear to be what we call forbs or flowering plants."
Anna Kozik pulls up a root structure she quickly identifies as Sisyrinchium angustifolium, a perennial flowering plant native to the region. Someone else found an eastern prickly pear cactus.
Kozik says that as she sits in front of the pile of dirt that used to be the Bell Bowl Prairie, she hopes that attitudes around conservation change fast.
“Because willfully believing this could never happen to your local remnant," she said, "is not going to save it."