'We can't just let this prairie go'

Rockford Airport project would clear rare gravel prairie, home to Rusty-patched Bumble Bee, Black-billed Cuckoo, Pasqueflower, Bobolink and more.

It wasn’t that long ago, really just a few thousand years, that most of Illinois was covered in ice sheets. As the glaciers receded, they left all sorts of subtle yet interesting landforms and miniature ecosystems. Grasses and forbs took root in these rocky parcels, often plants of the western prairies.

One of those is the Prairie Pasqueflower, the state flower of South Dakota and provincial flower of Manitoba. It’s the first blooming of all prairie plants. Joel Greenberg featured it and gravel prairies in A Natural History of the Chicago Region (The University of Chicago Press, 2002):

“Clearly one reason people find prairies so enchanting is the succession of colors as one plant after another reaches anthesis (time of flowering). The gravel prairies have fewer species than the lowland prairies and may be less showy, but because the grasses of the gravel hill prairies are short and sparse, the bursts of flowers throughout the growing season can be enjoyed without obstruction.”

Greenberg goes on to share an 1837 account of the land between Galena and Chicago, not far from present-day Rockford:

“No one can conceive the emotion that rises up in the bosom of the traveller as he stands on the broad prairie, and sees the horizon settling down upon one wide sea of waving grass.”

Well, not everyone shares that enthusiasm for our original grasslands—and maybe it’s not a shock in a state where most all our prairie is gone. Where some people see a prairie, other people see a weedy patch of grass for clearing. The landforms are indeed subtle in Illinois, but it doesn’t mean they’re any less valuable.

Case in point: the Board of the Greater Rockford Airport Authority, which is charged with managing an airport that handles up to 2 billion pounds of cargo each year. The thing is, the one gravel prairie on the property—a state natural area and one of the last left in the state—is where a new road will go in soon so more freight can be handled by Amazon and others. In fact, the road would basically raze what’s left of Bell Bowl Prairie, a site whose conservation dates to the legendary environmentalist George Fell.

“When you look at development on the airport, and you look at what is happening, what has happened in the cargo market, the need for shipments and products and everything that is out there, this development and growth has been happening so rapidly it is unavoidable,” said Zack Oakley, the Deputy Director of Operations and Planning at the airport.

Oakley and I will have to agree to disagree on this point. Methinks with only 2,000 or so acres left in the “Prairie State,” that the land might be better left alone.

“Our goal as an airport authority is to build and grow the local economy. Look at what we’ve done in terms of cargo growth in the last five years,” Oakley said. “We are 300% higher than we were five years ago. We are already 25% over last year.”

But not even for the federally endangered Rusty-patched Bumble Bee there or the state endangered Black-billed Cuckoo? Or the Pasqueflower? How about the Bobolinks? Having an environmental sustainability focus would seemingly be good for the local economy, too.

“We evaluated other areas, and unfortunately it (did) not fit,” Oakley said. “These things are always tough.”

The airport’s plans, though, only became apparent in the past couple of weeks. Bulldozers are poised over the prairie, and work’s been stopped until Nov. 1 before the Bumble Bees call it a season. I contacted Jennifer Kuroda of Sinnissippi Audubon to get a better sense of what’s going on. Kuroda and others have started a Facebook group to protest the prairie’s removal. She visited along with Jack White, the state’s foremost authority on the environmental history of the Illinois prairie.

“We got out there, and I thought, ‘No, I can’t just leave it like that [and let the airport expansion go on],’” said Kuroda. “It’s definitely worth saving. I just don’t understand that way of thinking, of wiping out remnant prairies in the name of expansion and progress. And especially when they can expand into other areas.”

Thinking about how this can be stopped, I emailed the Illinois Department of Natural Resources for comment, since state natural areas are under the department’s jurisdiction. It appears the airport has quite a bit of leverage here since the prairie’s on its land. Natural areas differ from state nature preserves in that they simply provide information to landowners about high-quality flora and fauna. Nature preserves are areas with a higher, nearly insurmountable level of protection.

“The IDNR has been conducting a review of the proposed construction of a new air cargo development at Rockford International Airport. The project was previously reviewed in 2018. Since that previous consultation is more than two years old, a new consultation was submitted,” a spokesperson wrote in an email.  “On Aug. 8, 2021, the state and federally-listed endangered Rusty-Patched Bumble Bee was identified within the Bell Bowl Prairie Illinois Natural Areas Inventory site at the airport.”

The email goes on:

“The Bell Bowl Prairie INAI site is one of the few remaining Dry Gravel Prairies in Illinois. The IDNR recommended impacts to the site be avoided to the extent practicable. If impacts cannot be avoided, the IDNR requested the opportunity to collect seeds and translocate plants and prairie materials to a Department-approved site. The IDNR is working with the airport regarding that request.”

The thing is, a few seeds aren’t going to replace the prairie. And when those Bumble Bees come back next year, along with the cuckoos, Bobolinks and Dickcissels, where are they going to go? Their nesting territory will be gone.

One advocate described the prospects of a prairie re-location this way:

“It would be taking the living equivalent of the most intricate, exquisite stained glass church window, shattering it, casting the shards on the ground, and then hoping that it will reassemble itself.” 

Kuroda, the nonprofit Natural Land Institute and others suggest contacting the Governor, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and legislators. Contact information for the Rockford Airport Authority is here.

“Even though it is small, it is still important to preserve that area, because you just cannot re-create that level of biodiversity that exists there,” Kuroda said to MyStateline.com. “I have seen prairies all over the world, and none of them compare to the tallgrass prairie we have here. None of them.”

Free outdoor screening of “Monty and Rose 2: The World of Monty and Rose”

We have a special outdoor screening of "Monty and Rose 2: The World of Monty and Rose" on Thursday! Join us at 6:30 p.m. in the parking lot of the Uptown Library at 929 West Buena Avenue. This is just the fourth in-person screening of the new film, and it’s a BYOC (Bring Your Own Chair) event. Registration is free.


Hoosier hospitality

About three hours south of Chicago, the rolling terrain gives way to a series of canyons gouged by glacial meltwater thousands of years ago. Among the most spectacular of these is Rocky Hollow, an Indiana nature preserve within Turkey Run State Park. I had a chance to stop there on my way back from Indiana Audubon Society’s Fall Festival this weekend. It was misty and rainy, but the moody weather provided an appropriate backdrop in the ancient gorges. Temperatures were about 10 degrees cooler in the canyon versus the surrounding upland areas. My only regret is that I had just about 30 minutes or so to explore this vast dynamic landscape.

TWiB Notes

The Biden Administration has restored a rule that strengthens protections for birds. The Trump Administration had rolled back policies that protected birds against “incidental take” by commercial interests……Officials in northeast Ohio are closing a portion of Lake Erie beach to encourage the nesting of Piping Plovers. It’s delightful news for this Ohioan and plover fan…..I’m overdue in sharing this Chicago Tribune piece on the burgeoning numbers of American White Pelican in the region. It’s a great time of year to spot these spectacular birds as they head south on migration. 

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