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New litigation over Bell Bowl Prairie may be on the horizon

Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco
Environmentalists gather outside of the Rockford City Hall and host rally for the Bell Bowl Prairie

Earlier this week, environmentalists circled Rockford City Hall and called for city officials to intervene in the impending destruction of the Bell Bowl Prairie. In the meantime, a recently announced notice of litigation may provide the prairie limited life support.

The federally endangered rusty patched bumble bee was documented at the prairie over a year ago. That’s since delayed the planned expansion of the Chicago Rockford International Airport over the site.

Speaking to a crowd outside of City Hall, Jillian Neece, a local environmental organizer, said it’s time for officials to act.

“As the elected leaders of Rockford, Mayor McNamara and city council members have status that gives them negotiating power with the airport,” said Neece.“They can at least meet with the airport and talk to them about this, which the airport has repeatedly refused to do with the citizens of Rockford.”

Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco
Jillian Neece, northern Illinois environmentalist, speaks to crowd outside of the Rockford city hall.

The airport authority canceled several of its public meetings last year.

Lawyers for The Natural Land Institute announced a 60-day notice of intent to file a lawsuit that will allege violations of the Endangered Species Act by several federal agencies as well as the Greater Rockford Airport Authority.

Kerry Leigh, executive director of the Natural Land Institute, says she hopes officials do the right thing.

“They have failed to ensure,” she said, “that their funding, their authorization, their construction, their expansion and the operation of the Rockford airport does not jeopardize the health and existence of the federally listed endangered rusty patched bumble bee.”

Leigh adds that the goal is not to stop the expansion, only to stop development over the prairie.

This will be the latest lawsuit from the NLI. The last attempt at litigation was dismissed without prejudice back in August. In the following months, The Federal Aviation Administration and USFWS concluded that the project may affect, but is not likely to adversely affect, the endangered bee.

In December, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources agreed in a letter that adverse impacts to the bee were “unlikely.” The IDNR said the Department's closed consultation does not imply the “department’s authorization or endorsement of the proposed action.”

As it stands, one last evaluation from the Federal Aviation Administration stands between the airport’s projected development and the 15.5-acre of prairie habitat, a piece of which represents some of the last remnant dry-gravel prairie left in Illinois.

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Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco
Environmentalists rally outside of Rockford city hall and prompt cars to sound their horns in support of saving the Bell Bowl Prairie from an expansion at Rockford Airport.

Before entering city hall to address the city council, Neece says the battle over Bell Bowl Prairie isn’t over.

“We remind Mayor McNamara and the city council,” said Neece, “that they have a responsibility for their constituents to fight for this prairie.”

According to Neece, there's still time for the airport to apply for state funds to redesign their plan in a way that won't destroy the ancient prairie.

Juanpablo covers environmental, substandard housing and police-community relations. He’s been a bilingual facilitator at the StoryCorps office in Chicago. As a civic reporting fellow at City Bureau, a non-profit news organization that focuses on Chicago’s South Side, Ramirez-Franco produced print and audio stories about the Pilsen neighborhood. Before that, he was a production intern at the Third Coast International Audio Festival and the rural America editorial intern at In These Times magazine. Ramirez-Franco grew up in northern Illinois. He is a graduate of Knox College.