Advocates respond, calling the destruction ‘devastating’
Rockford, IL – Much of the ancient Bell Bowl Prairie was demolished this morning as bulldozers for the Greater Rockford Airport Authority (GRAA) rolled through the most pristine acres of the ancient prairie land following Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) clearance.
“The destruction of Bell Bowl Prairie is nothing short of devastating,” said Kerry Leigh, executive director of the Natural Land Institute. “At every opportunity to embrace a common sense compromise plan that would have spared the prairie, Paul Cicero, Mike Dunn, Zack Oakley and the Greater Rockford Airport Authority failed our community miserably. Illinois’ moniker as ‘the Prairie State’ becomes less and less fitting each time our leaders fail to protect our iconic, irreplaceable prairie landscape.”
Thousands of Illinoisans expressed support for an alternative project design that would have preserved the 8,000-year-old prairie while maintaining anticipated airport services and jobs that benefit the Rockford community.
“It’s hard to feel victorious right now, but the fight to save Bell Bowl has taught thousands of people about the importance of ancient ecosystems as well as the limitations of bureaucracy, and no one can take that away,” said Robb Telfer, Save Bell Bowl Prairie campaign director. “People from Winnebago County and all of Illinois came together and delayed the demolition for nearly two years, but in the end, government agencies, politicians, and judges that are supposed to carry out the will of the people refused to stick their necks out because the only incentive to stop or prolong this destruction was that it was the right thing to do. Sometimes the right thing to do is harder than hiding behind the letter of the law. But make no mistake, the Greater Rockford Airport Authority, under Paul Cicero’s and Mike Dunn’s leadership, are the ones to blame for this totally unnecessary tragedy. Tens of thousands of people wanted something that about nine people refused to budge on or even have a single conversation about.”
“It has come to our attention that Mike Dunn, executive director of the Chicago Rockford International Airport, has suggested today that the delay in prairie destruction has cost taxpayers nearly $1 million, an admission that it was in everyone’s best interest environmentally and financially to adopt an alternative construction plan that would have spared the prairie while also accomplishing the goals of the expansion project,” Leigh continued.
The Bell Bowl Prairie was an extremely rare remnant prairie where recently, the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee, a federally endangered species, was observed. Less than 1/100th of 1 percent of native prairie landscape remains in Illinois. Now lost, the Bell Bowl Prairie can never be replaced.
“We lost a unique piece of Illinois history and irreplaceable habitat today,” said Amy Doll, director of Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves. “Bell Bowl Prairie is an 8000-year-old original Illinois Prairie – a piece of America – that can’t be recreated. This prairie contained some of the most intact and undisturbed natural plant communities found anywhere in the state of Illinois, and now virtually none of this specific prairie type remains today in Illinois. It was more than just a collection of plants, but was a web of bacteria, fungi, microbes, and plants that supported endangered and threatened species.”
There is less than one-hundredth of one percent (0.01%) of prairie remaining in the state of Illinois. Gravel prairies such as Bell Bowl occur on steep slopes, usually facing south or southwest, with abundant, low-growing grasses and wildflowers. Losing five acres of high-quality gravel hill prairie is a loss that cannot be mitigated with any effort known to science.
Doll continued, “Some of the rarest of the rare species in Illinois occur at Bell Bowl Prairie, and the lack of protection from our state and federal Endangered Species Acts is shameful. Bell Bowl Prairie is a clear example of how these laws don’t protect the habitats of our endangered species; they merely regulate its destruction.”
“The work of the organizations and hundreds of volunteers who have fought to protect this precious prairie has not been in vain,” said Illinois Environmental Council Conservation Director Lindsay Keeney. “We already knew that Illinoisans care about our prairie lands, native plants and endangered species, but the power built by this movement to protect them has ignited the momentum we need to protect other irreplaceable sites at risk in Illinois. Those fights are just around the corner, as many other unique Illinois natural areas remain unprotected.”
In the coming days, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission and the Forest Preserves of Winnebago County will conduct a joint sod rescue operation as a last-resort effort to salvage what is left of the demolition site and transport the soil to a preserve nearby. There will still be 6.2 acres of Bell Bowl left, albeit bifurcated and in the care of the Rockford airport. Advocates refuse to let what remains be lost without a fight.