Rockford Airport Sues to Dismiss Lawsuit Halting Destruction of Bell Bowl Prairie

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)

On Friday, the Greater Rockford Airport Authority filed a motion in U.S. District Court to dismiss a lawsuit blocking the airport’s planned expansion of its cargo operations, which would destroy a rare five-acre high-quality remnant prairie in the process.

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The land in question, Bell Bowl Prairie, is located within the airport’s boundaries. The $50 million expansion project calls for construction of a new road that would slice through the prairie, which is home to a number of threatened plant species, as well as the federal endangered rusty patched bumble bee.

A lawsuit, filed in late October by Natural Land Institute, the longtime stewards of Bell Bowl, earned the prairie an eleventh-hour reprieve from bulldozers, which had been set to roll Nov. 1. The airport agreed to a temporary pause, set to expire March 1.

In its newly filed motion, the airport authority, along with the airport’s board of commissioners and Executive Director Michael Dunn argue that Natural Land Institute, long time stewards of Bell Bowl Prairie, had no standing to sue in the first place.

The land is owned by the airport authority, the motion states, and “is not a public park or otherwise accessible to the public.” As such, “Natural Land Institute has no right to be on the property and thus can claim no injury resulting from the development of the land.”

The airport authority’s board of commissioners continues to dispute the existence of a 40-year agreement with the Natural Land Institute to manage Bell Bowl. The board adopted a resolution at its Dec. 16 meeting that repealed any such relationship “if it was even approved” back in 1977. 

Kerry Leigh, executive director of the Natural Land Institute, said the latest legal maneuver is a sign the airport authority is “digging in” and has no intention of consulting with conservationists or members of the Rockford community in terms of coming up with an alternative plan that would allow for expansion and saving Bell Bowl.

“We were expecting they were going to file a motion to dismiss, so we’re ready,” Leigh said. “We have more tools in our toolbox.”

Natural Land Institute has 30 days to respond to the airport authority’s motion, she said, meaning “the bulldozers won’t be out (at Bell Bowl) this weekend.”

The clock is ticking though. At the recent board of commissioners meeting, Zack Oakley, deputy director of operations and planning at Rockford Airport, described the expansion project as 65% complete, with a new midfield ramp opening to aircraft in the coming days.

The airport experienced 40% growth in cargo handled in November 2021 versus the same period in 2020, Oakley said during a presentation that emphasized the airfield’s importance as an economic engine for the region.

Supporters of Bell Bowl have consistently said saving the prairie doesn’t have to be “either-or” but rather “both-and.”

Speaking at the board meeting, Jim Roberts, retired pastor of Rockford’s Emmanuel Lutheran Church, described himself as a booster of the city and airport — “My son’s worked (at the airport) over 20 years. I’ve got skin in this,” he said — but noted that paving over a prairie wasn’t the kind of attention the city needed.

“The optics are not going to be good,” Roberts said. “We can have an amazing airport and an expansion, and we can also have a very quiet, very significant irreplaceable prairie.”

The Save Bell Bowl Prairie movement has an updated action alert aimed at lawmakers, with a goal of besting the 33,000 letters sent earlier this fall to halt construction, Leigh said.

“Make that your holiday gift to Bell Bowl,” she said.

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

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