With Time Running Out, Environmentalists File Lawsuit to Save Illinois Prairie

An airport expansion planned for November 1 threatens to destroy a rare remnant prairie home to imperiled plants and wildlife.

Update October 29, 2021: The Natural Land Institute announced on Thursday evening that it has reached an agreement with the Greater Rockford Airport Authority to temporarily halt construction activities that would damage Bell Bowl Prairie, and has withdrawn its lawsuit. The airport has agreed to delay the expansion until March 1, 2022, the group reported, allowing time for consultation between the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to evaluate how the project will impact the endangered rusty patched bumble bee. Additionally, the airport said Thursday that it has amended its plan for the expansion to remove one element, a detention basin, that was to be built in the prairie.

Driving past Bell Bowl Prairie in August, Dan Williams didn’t expect to see bulldozers. Williams, a local birder, spotted earth movers scraping dirt away from the west end of the roughly 25-acre prairie, a natural area and birding destination in northern Illinois. Concerned, he called the Natural Land Institute (NLI), a local conservation group, and learned they were equally in the dark.

The work was part of an expansion that the Chicago Rockford International Airport, which owns the land encompassing Bell Bowl Prairie, proposed in 2019. But NLI and other local environmentalists say they were blindsided by the construction, despite the group’s informal role as manager of the prairie since the 1970s. The sighting in August of the federally endangered rusty patched bumble bee on the site brought the work to a halt, but it’s set to resume on November 1. Now, NLI has filed a last-minute lawsuit to prevent the bulldozers from rolling over the remaining grassland.

“This action we are taking today would allow for this ancient prairie, a special place that has captured the hearts of so many Americans across the state and the country, time to be reassessed in the spring to determine if the rusty patched bumble bee, a federally endangered creature, is currently nesting in the prairie,” said Kerry Leigh, NLI executive director, in a press conference today announcing the lawsuit. “Why is an ancient prairie expendable, and a parking lot so precious?”

Illinois, known as the Prairie State, at one time supported 21 million acres of tallgrass prairie. Now, just one one-hundredth of 1 percent remains. It’s a story that’s replicated across the country—about half of U.S. grasslands have been converted to agriculture or other uses since European colonization. Grassland birds, meanwhile, have become some of the country’s most imperiled, showing the most sustained decline out of all bird groups in North America. These at-risk species include Bobolinks, Northern Bobwhites, and Vesper Sparrows, which have all been reported at Bell Bowl Prairie on eBird.

The airport expansion would make space for more cargo planes, increase parking for employees, create roads, and bring jobs to the region. It would also destroy nearly the entire prairie. “With their plan, they’re swapping a 10,000-year-old evolved ecosystem for basically a large parking lot and three holes in the ground,” says Domenico D’Alessandro, a retired landscape architect working with NLI to save the habitat. “That, to me, is a tragedy.”

Soon after learning about the expansion, NLI got in touch with the Sinnissippi Audubon Society, which helped raise awareness about the construction. These groups held public meetings, and concerned citizens contacted elected officials. The Facebook group, “Save Bell Bowl Prairie,” has over 3,000 members.

The lawsuit seeks to pause construction pending a new environmental assessment for the project. The original environmental assessment, from 2019, wrongly claimed a state endangered wildflower called large-flowered beardtongue was not present, Leigh says, and did not address the presence of the state endangered prairie false dandelion. The suit also says airport officials have failed to consider alternative options that would save the grassland.

The airport said in a statement that its environmental assessment, conducted through the Federal Aviation Administration, is sufficient. “[The airport] followed all guidelines and rules set forth by the FAA, Federal, state, and local government that are required in order to proceed with any development in the assessment area,” said Zack Oakley, the airport’s deputy director of operations and planning, in a statement.

Along with the state-protected plants, at-risk bird species have also appeared at Bell Bowl Prairie in recent years, notably the state endangered Loggerhead Shrike and the state threatened Black-billed Cuckoo. “We get birds that we don't see in a lot of other places in the county,” says Rockford birder John Longhenry. Over the years he’s seen Bell’s Vireos, Blue Grosbeaks, and migratory Bobolinks there. 

But it was a sighting of the bumble bee that temporarily halted construction on close to 5 acres of high-quality remnant habitat. Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) employees photographed the bee on a site survey, leading to a construction hold until the end of bee foraging season. The lawsuit would allow time for the prairie to be reassessed in the spring for the presence of the bee.

Leigh stresses that NLI is not trying to stop the project altogether, but to find a way to save the majority of the prairie. “We're hoping to be able to sit down with the airport and negotiate and come up with an agreement,” she says, “that avoids the prairie but also allows the airport to do its expansion.” D’Alessandro has sketched an alternative plan that he says would accomplish those goals. His concept eliminates the need for a planned 16-acre paved parking lot by suggesting a multi-level garage, for example, and situates the proposed buildings along an existing road, making the planned new road “redundant,” he says. 

The airport, for its part, has offered one alternative: According to a statement, they have agreed to allow the IDNR to remove state endangered plants and a few other species from Bell Bowl Prairie and move them to another location, though the lawsuit could halt that plan. But activists say that a transplanted prairie won’t be the same as the original remnant, which has been intact since the retreat of glaciers. “One plant exists because of another,” says Jennifer Kuroda, president of Sinnissippi Audubon Society. “You can't just dig that up and try and grow it somewhere else.”

While the foraging bee saved some of the grassland for a few extra weeks, the airport has moved forward with other parts of the plan. The prairie has now been whittled down to only about 14 acres, since they bulldozed some area for a parking lot, prepped drainage systems, and covered some ground to prevent erosion, Kuroda says. And a road has been built right up to the edge of the protected area.

What’s left might seem insignificant. “People are saying, ‘It’s just a few acres here, it’s just a few acres there,’” Leigh says. But with so much grassland habitat already lost, she adds, even small remnants like Bell Bowl Prairie are worth fighting for. “I think we’ve compromised enough away.”