clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Economic growth and an 8,000-year-old prairie can coexist

Rockford can expand its airport while preserving the Bell Bowl Prairie

The Bell Bowl Prairie.
cassi saari photo

The Greater Rockford Airport Authority should not bulldoze a small piece of prairie that is one of the few remaining high-quality prairies in the state.

The possibly 8,000-year-old Bell Bowl Prairie covers 20-plus acres near the Chicago-Rockford International Airport, which is expanding as it builds a 100,000-square-foot air freight facility, storm water basins and a road that would run smack-dab through the highest quality portion of Bell Bowl.

Because the prairie includes 5 acres of excellent and intricate ecological quality, it was identified as an “outstanding” and high-priority Illinois Natural Area Inventory site in the 1970s. Its plant communities are some of the most intact and undisturbed in the state. There you can see black-billed cuckoos, northern harriers, upland sandpipers, large-flowered beardtongue and prairie dandelions, all species designated by the state of Illinois as endangered. Many other species, including others that are endangered, make their home there.

We understand the airport development is important to Rockford and Northern Illinois. Airport officials say they completed all required environmental assessments. One edge of the prairie, although not the highest quality part, already was bulldozed this year.

Moving a prairie is a bad idea

But this doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition. Environmentalists say there is enough available land to both expand the airport, help the Rockford area economy and protect the remaining swath of natural grassland.

Bell Bowl Prairie
Jessie Crow Mermel

The airport authority has said employees of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources will start digging up plants at the prairie on Thursday to move them to another site. Late on Tuesday, the Natural Land Institute sued in U.S. District Court to stop work on the expansion and wait until spring when an updated environmental assessment can be performed.

Moving a nearly pristine prairie simply isn’t practical. The odds of a successful relocation are very low. The plants, microbes, insects and other prairie inhabitants have evolved together over millennia in that particular soil. The root system is exceptionally deep and can’t be moved intact to another place. And where would you move them? Environmentalists say if there is a quality natural area that would accept these plants, they would already be there.

John White, an Urbana ecologist who helped create the Illinois Natural Area Inventory, told us it’s possible to save individual plants if they are tended to like garden plants.

But with frosts already setting in, “This is among the worst times of year to transplant prairie plants,” he said.

If prairies are left alone and cared for, they are highly resistant to invasion by weeds, which is why we still have the Bell Bowl. But prairies are very vulnerable to earth-moving operations, White said.

Bulldozing the prairie has been delayed until Nov. 1 because the federally protected rusty patched bumble bee forages there. After Nov. 1, the foraging ends and the queen bumble bees — the only bees who survive the winter — will be nestled somewhere underground. Because no one knows where the queens are, it won’t break environmental laws to dig up the prairie. But cutting it in half with a road is very likely a death sentence for them.

Bell Bowl Prairie in autumn.
Joni Decker

We have to wonder if the decision not to fill the post of director at the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission since 2015 allowed the plans for the airport expansion to go forward under the radar of environmentalists. The state has approved the hiring of a director and appointed an interim leader. But the commission has lacked a key environmental leader for six years who would have had the metaphorical megaphone to call attention to the prairie’s plight.

At a time when the world needs to display heightened respect for science, the ecosystem and the planet’s future, it’s discouraging to see officials planning to give short shrift to an important site of age-old flora and fauna.

Supporters of the prairie are planning rallies from Thursday through Saturday, but there is no guarantee commissioners will heed their appeals. They should. Less than 0.1% of Illinois’ original prairie remains. The rest has been relentlessly chewed up.

This is not just a Rockford area issue. As climate change increasingly threatens the planet, we will need all the genetic biodiversity we can get. We should not destroy it when we don’t have to.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.