For the past eight months, members of the Save Bell Bowl Prairie coalition have been inundating Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office with emails, petitions, texts, tweets, phone calls and old-fashioned letters, pleading with the governor to broker a deal that would save a patch of ancient prairie from demolition by the Greater Rockford Airport Authority, which plans to rip up the prairie as part of a major expansion of the airfield’s cargo operation.
The deluge of messages has largely been met with silence, save for a brief off-the-cuff comment made by the governor at a press conference back in November. Then, two weeks ago, Pritzker’s reelection campaign dropped a 30-second TV ad called “Cargo Load.”
“Do you know what city has the fastest growing cargo airport in the world? Rockford, Illinois!” the ad boasts. “As governor, J.B. Pritzker made it happen.”
“My first reaction was, ‘What?’” said Kerry Leigh, executive director of the Natural Land Institute, the organization that for decades was entrusted with stewardship of Bell Bowl Prairie — a handful of acres of 8,000-year-old land tucked inside the airport’s nearly 3,000-acre expanse.
In the ad’s emphasis on job creation and the airport’s importance as an economic engine, Leigh distinctly heard echoes of the talking points the airport authority has used in its ongoing battle against the Save Bell Bowl coalition, by portraying the conservationists as anti-development and anti-commerce.
“What I got out of the commercial is (Pritzker’s) only listening to the airport,” said Robb Telfer, of Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves, a nonprofit that’s allied itself with Natural Land Institute in the fight for Bell Bowl.
Though representatives from the Save Bell Bowl coalition have met with staffers from the offices of U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth — who’ve both funneled funding to the Rockford Airport — they’ve never been granted an audience with Pritzker or his proxies. If they had been, they would have outlined their proposal for a compromise solution of “airport and prairie,” Leigh said, but “his office is impenetrable.”
Pritzker’s gubernatorial staff did not respond to a request for comment from WTTW News.
Natalie Edelstein, communications director for the Pritzker campaign, said the “Cargo Load” ad was not indicative of a shift in any previously held position, or a prioritizing of economic development over environmental protection.
Leigh disagrees. Choosing the Rockford Airport as the subject for a campaign ad, and specifically focusing on its cargo expansion, which precipitated the Save Bell Bowl movement, was a choice. “He didn’t have to come out with this ad,” she said. “He could have remained neutral. I think there’s something else political going on here and we don’t know what that is.”
If “Cargo Load” isn’t explicitly anti-prairie, there’s been no pro-prairie ad either, which has implications beyond Bell Bowl, environmentalists say.
At the same time that the governor’s campaign has been airing the “Cargo Load” TV spot, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, on Pritzker’s directive, has been holding listening sessions related to the “30 by 30” initiative, in which the state is aiming to conserve 30% of its land and water resources by the year 2030, a figure that’s currently less than 5%.
“We can’t start to get to 30% by going backwards,” said Amy Doll, executive director of the Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves. “You can’t start 30-by-30 by saying, ‘But first, let’s destroy some of the remaining really good stuff.’”
There’s also the latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which listed preservation and restoration of habitats including grasslands (i.e. prairies) as a key mitigation strategy to promote biodiversity and stave off ecological collapse.
“We have incredible challenges — climate change, habitat fragmentation, invasive species — and we’re pushing along as if nothing’s happening,” said Leigh. The governor should be leading the state forward and connecting the dots for Illinoisans between Bell Bowl and broader environmental issues, instead “his legacy will be extinction,” she said.