Bell Bowl Prairie Reprieve, Rockford Airport Temporarily Pauses Construction

Bell Bowl Prairie, a high-quality remnant of Illinois prairie, located within the boundary of Chicago Rockford International Airport. (Courtesy of Cassi Saari)Bell Bowl Prairie, a high-quality remnant of Illinois prairie, located within the boundary of Chicago Rockford International Airport. (Courtesy of Cassi Saari)

In a dramatic 11th-hour development, an agreement has been reached to temporarily halt construction activity that would destroy the 8,000-year-old Bell Bowl Prairie remnant, located on Rockford Airport property and targeted for demolition as part of a $50 million expansion of the airfield’s cargo operations.

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Thursday evening, the Natural Land Institute, long-time stewards of Bell Bowl, announced that a deal had been reached through U.S. District Court with the Greater Rockford Airport Authority, its board of commissioners and executive director Michael Dunn. 

The parties agreed on a temporary reprieve for Bell Bowl through March 1, 2022, which buys more time for the Natural Land Institute in its bid to convince the Airport Authority to explore alternative design concepts that protect the prairie and the endangered rusty patched bumble bee, according to a statement from the institute.

Natural Land Institute had filed a lawsuit against the Airport Authority Wednesday and an evidentiary hearing had been scheduled for Friday morning. That hearing will no longer take place and the institute is withdrawing its motion for a temporary restraining order, but reserves the ability to file at a later date.

For their part, airport officials said they are redesigning a portion of the expansion project, removing a retention basin slated to be built in Bell Bowl’s footprint. Construction of an access road that would cut through Bell Bowl’s highest quality habitat, which had been slated to resume Nov. 1, is the piece that’s been suspended while consultations get underway with federal agencies.

Conservationists are cautiously pleased with the short-term victory but said the fight to save Bell Bowl is far from over, pointing to the airport’s press release, which states: “We anticipate the resumption of the project in the spring of 2022.”

Among the points of contention: In August, the federally endangered rusty patched bumble bee was spotted at Bell Bowl Prairie. Construction of the access road was halted until Nov. 1, deemed the end of the bee’s foraging season. Conservationists have argued that the rusty patched is likely to nest or over-winter in the prairie.

As Natural Land Institute noted, the suspension until March 1, 2022, does not allow time to determine if the bee is nesting on the prairie, which must be done in the summer.

During the coming months, the airport said it will work with the Federal Aviation Administration, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “to ensure the project continues and we can plan and develop in compliance with the federal and state regulations for the endangered species,” Zack Oakley, the airport’s deputy director of operations and planning, said in a statement.

“The FAA is reinitiating consultation under the Endangered Species Act with the USFWS to evaluate impacts to the rusty patched bumble bee,” Oakley said.

An initial evaluation, conducted in 2018 over the course of a single day in August, resulted in a “finding of no significant impact” in terms of the planned cargo expansion on the environment. Airport officials say the assessment followed all guidelines, while conservationists have called the process deeply flawed. 

A grassroots coalition in support of saving Bell Bowl has blitzed elected officials with calls and emails as the clock ticked toward the Nov. 1 deadline. Among their targets was U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, who has been both a champion of environmental causes but also funneled millions of federal dollars to the Rockford Airport, which has quickly grown into a cargo powerhouse.

The senator’s office has taken care to note that none of those dollars were being used to build the access road set to slice through Bell Bowl. 

On Thursday, Durbin released a statement regarding Bell Bowl’s temporary reprieve: “I continue to encourage both sides to meet on a solution that is in the best interest of the environment, regional jobs and economic development. Today’s announcement is a good first step.” 

Natural Land Institute echoed the characterization of “first step.” The airport’s reference to removing a detention basin but no mention of rerouting the access road is concerning, the group said.  

“Natural Land Institute will continue to pursue legal remedies to protect the remaining prairie and make sure we have access to monitor the prairie,” the organization said its statement.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

Contact Patty Wetli: @pattywetli | (773) 509-5623 |  [email protected]

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