Bell Bowl Proponents Sue To Stop Rockford Airport’s Bulldozers, Say ‘Prairies Are Illinois’ Redwoods’

On Wednesday, the Natural Land Institute announced it had filed suit in U.S. District Court, asking for a judge to issue an injunction to halt the demolition of a rare patch of ancient prairie by the Greater Rockford Airport Authority.

“This is 2021. This type of design and disregard for our natural systems should no longer be tolerated at any level,” said Kerry Leigh, the institute’s executive director, speaking at a Wednesday morning press conference. “We should not have to be here.”

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Bulldozers are set to excavate Bell Bowl Prairie on Monday to pave the way for a new road being constructed as part of the expansion of Rockford Airport’s cargo facilities.

“Prairies are Illinois’ redwoods,” Leigh said. Bell Bowl represents a “fragment of what we once were and can still be,” and accounts for 25 of the 80 acres of high- or medium-quality gravel prairie remaining in the Prairie State, she added. Some of it has already been erased by the airport. 

The suit is not asking for the airport to scrap its expansion altogether, conservationists take pains to emphasize, but rather to stop the bulldozers and start talking about alternatives. 

“We have our own small Yosemite just south of town (Rockford),” said Steven Hall, co-chair of the Sierra Club’s Northwest River Valleys group. “Surely it’s worth a moment to think about what we’re about to destroy and whether there are better options.”

Judge Iain Johnston has been assigned to the case and an evidentiary hearing has been set for 9 a.m. Friday.

Pressing pause on construction would give conservationists time to conduct a thorough assessment of plants and wildlife on site. A one-day field study, in which no endangered species were found at Bell Bowl, was cited in a 2018 report that allowed the airport’s plan to go forward.

That report and the processes under which it was put together were “disturbingly flawed,” said Leigh. Multiple endangered plants and the federally endangered rusty patched bumble bee have all be seen at Bell Bowl in recent months, she noted.

Conservationists have been clamoring for a meeting with the airport authority’s board of commissioners to discuss a compromise for months and have been met with either the same “dull, repetitive response” or “deafening silence,” Leigh said. Should a judge side with the Natural Land Institute and issue an injunction, the board might be forced to the table.

Airport officials did not immediately have a response to the lawsuit when contacted by WTTW News. 

Bell Bowl proponents have put forward a proposal for the airport expansion that would incorporate green technology to shrink the expansion’s footprint and thereby spare the need to touch the prairie. Green roofs, permeable pavers and underground cisterns, for example, could replace the need for the three large stormwater retention ponds included in the airport’s plan. Swapping out a 16-acre employee parking lot for a parking garage is another idea included in the alternate proposal.

“Destroying prairie is a choice,” said Judy Barnard, a member of the National Land Institute’s board of trustees. “All of the (airport) facilities can be designed and built without impacting the prairie.”

The expansion project has been in the works for years, but conservationists only became aware of the impact on Bell Bowl, situated inside the airport’s 3,000 acres, in recent months. A team from the Natural Land Institute held a work day at Bell Bowl in July and no one from the airport said a word about the expansion plan, Leigh said.

Caught flat-footed, environmentalists were handed a brief reprieve when the federally endangered rusty patched bumble bee was spotted at Bell Bowl in August. The airport halted demolition of Bell Bowl until Nov. 1, which was deemed the end of the bee’s foraging season. 

A grassroots coalition quickly formed to save Bell Bowl, blitzing elected officials and the airport’s board with emails, phone calls and letters as the clock continues to tick. 

A rally had been planned for Thursday to coincide with the airport board’s monthly meeting, but the board canceled the meeting and rally organizers followed suit.

Note: this story was originally published Oct. 27. it has been updated to include our “Chicago Tonight” discussion. 

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

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