Nurtured from native seeds, a lively prairie near Ohio’s Dayton International Airport sprouted on 140 acres of former farmland in 1995. The wildflower revival marked a win for both conservation and aviation at the time. Yet alongside verdant grasses, seeds of conflict were sown.
Aullwood Audubon had helped cultivate the Paul E. Knoop, Jr. Prairie to protect the watershed of Wiles Creek. The stream starts on the prairie’s edge and meanders under a highway, feeding the Audubon center’s sensitive wetlands. While providing habitat for birds and insects, its tall grasses don’t appeal to Canada Geese, which are a particular menace to airplanes.
In 2007, with airport traffic and Dayton’s economy slumping, the city ended Aullwood’s lease, citing a decade-old FAA recommendation of at least 10,000 feet of distance between runways and wildlife attractants such as waterways, grasslands, and golf courses. The property was slated for development, but due to legal and zoning complications, the plans didn’t materialize. Then, last year, the city struck a deal with General Motors to build a manufacturing facility over much of the still-flourishing land.
Aullwood and Five Rivers Metroparks, a regional public park system, along with thousands of community members who signed a petition or attended public meetings, have rallied against the habitat’s destruction. Opponents especially worry that increased runoff from a paved area could alter the hydrology of the surrounding ecosystem.
“We said for years, ‘What is one stream? What is one prairie? What is one pond?,’” says Aullwood Audubon Executive Director Alexis R. Faust. “Everything is interconnected. If we keep sacrificing the bits and pieces we have left, there will be consequences.”
Knoop Prairie’s plight isn’t unique. From Denver to Kansas City, the appeal of building near airports, which are likely to be surrounded by vacant and ecologically valuable land, is increasing, especially in the age of instant delivery. “It’s frustrating, as a biologist, to watch,” says Sarah Brammell, president of the consulting firm Blue Wing Environmental and a steering member of Bird Strike Committee USA, a group that works to reduce wildlife-aviation hazards.
Yet when conservation and commercialization interests collide on airport-adjacent lands, both aviation safety and financial considerations complicate the discussion. Wildlife strikes cause an estimated average of $1.2 billion in damages to commercial aviation worldwide each year.
Airport to airport, wildlife risks to airplanes—a bird hitting a plane, a deer on a runway, or in Florida, an alligator—vary based on habitat, region, flight routes, and more. Often, these risks require monitoring and active mitigation, which aren’t straightforward. Prairies, for example, may attract hazardous birds like raptors, even if they attract fewer geese. Yet managed grasses draw similar numbers of dangerous birds, says veteran aviation-wildlife scientist Richard Dolbeer. And paving a prairie doesn’t wipe away threats: A manufacturing facility, such as the one proposed at Knoop, might invite pigeons and starlings, collision hazards themselves. On coasts, colonies of nesting gulls are attracted to factories and other facilities.
All of this is reason that hard-and-fast habitat-management requirements don’t exist. “People want a set rule, but the FAA can’t make a rule. The guidance needs to be flexible,” says Brammell. “The true challenge is finding the balance between necessary transportation infrastructure and conservation goals. Every airport strives for that.”
As air travel increases, more research and data are providing a better understanding of this balance. Ultimately, however, the fate of Knoop will likely rest on economic factors, and recently Dayton conservationists won a reprieve. General Motors decided to build on a different site just 15 miles away, meaning jobs would stay in the county. In Faust’s opinion, it’s the best of both worlds. “I was very relieved,” she says. “It’s not a good feeling to feel like you cannot protect the thing that you are hired to curate,” she says of the Aullwood property.
The city is still looking for a buyer, and Aullwood hopes an entity that preserves the prairie will step in. One challenge may be figuring out how to generate the tax revenue that development would bring to Dayton. There are no answers yet, but this spring, at least, purple and gray-headed coneflowers and summer splashes of goldenrod and aster will continue to greet travelers.
This story originally ran in the Spring 2020 issue as "Seeding Ground." To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.