A rare patch of 8,000-year-old remnant Illinois prairie has been granted a new three-month lease on life, as the Greater Rockford Airport Authority has again delayed demolition of the natural area, slated for March 1, pending additional environmental review.
Though the airport authority declined to comment, a spokesperson for the Federal Aviation Administration told WTTW News that airport officials had committed to halting construction at Bell Bowl through June 1.
Prairie “watchdogs” had camped out Monday night across from the airport to watch for signs of movement, and remain vigilant even with news of the delay.
“The best we can do is hold their (the airport authority’s) feet to the fire,” said Kerry Leigh, executive director of the Natural Land Institute, longtime stewards of Bell Bowl.
Twice now members of the Save Bell Bowl Prairie coalition have rallied to protect the small 5-acre slice of rare high-quality gravel prairie — less than 25 acres of which exist in Illinois in total — which is situated within the airport’s 3,000-acre property. The airport authority’s plan calls for a road to be built through the prairie as part of a $50 million expansion of its cargo operation.
Construction equipment began rumbling toward the prairie in summer 2021, catching Natural Land Institute by surprise, the organization not having been notified of the airport’s plans.
When the federally endangered rusty patched bumble bee was discovered at Bell Bowl in August, the bulldozers were idled. Airport officials originally announced a grace period through Nov. 1 to accommodate the bee’s foraging season.
Following an outpouring of public support for the prairie’s preservation, and the filing of lawsuits by Natural Land Institute, the November deadline was pushed to March, and now it's been moved again.
Apart from the pending litigation, Bell Bowl advocates continue to push for airport officials to come to the table and consider a compromise, one that would save the prairie while allowing for airport expansion. Just move the road, advocates say.
Members of the Save Bell Bowl coalition have also kept up the pressure on elected officials, particularly Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the state’s two U.S. senators — Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth — asking them to step in on the prairie’s behalf.
In November, during a visit to the Rockford Airport, Pritzker responded to a question about Bell Bowl, stating: “We don’t need to have a trade-off here.” The prairie and the airport’s growth aren’t mutually exclusive, he said, but no stronger statement or further action has been forthcoming.
Both Durbin and Duckworth have helped funnel federal dollars to the Rockford Airport but both also have promoted conservation efforts in the Great Lakes region and espoused an eco-friendly agenda.
In a form letter to Bell Bowl advocates, Durbin has responded: “I hope that the airport’s plans can be adjusted so that Bell Bowl Prairie can be preserved while allowing Rockford Airport to continue to expand and serve as an economic anchor for the Rockford community.”
In terms of the environmental review, the Greater Rockford Airport Authority is required to submit a biological assessment to the FAA for review. If the FAA has no quarrels with the assessment, the document then goes to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for review, which can take up to 135 days.