What's happening at Bell Bowl Prairie is indeed a throwback to the 1960s
Construction of airport road through state natural area may resume March 1
Chicago-Rockford International Airport Director Mike Dunn took to the podium at a chamber of commerce luncheon last week to tout the airport’s many economic benefits to the Rockford region. As he spoke, a group of youth activists appeared to his right and unfurled a large banner that read “SAVE BELL BOWL PRAIRIE” in an effort to draw his attention, that of attendees, and most anyone on social media. Dunn paused his presentation and the crowd began to murmur.
“Don’t you feel like it’s the sixties,” Dunn quipped as the youth activists were ushered away. It was a poor attempt at humor in the face of a serious issue at the intersection of business and the environment.
The thing is, though, it does feel like the 1960s, just not in the way Dunn intended. Back in the 1960s, we knew a lot less about the climate, far less about the perils of carbon emissions, and less about the development that has devastated Illinois’ prairie ecosystems. In the 1960s, an economic expansion project may have sailed through approvals in the name of commerce. It was before the Endangered Species Act, before the Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act, and before the Clean Water Act. Back in the 1960s, business interests could bully their way to profits without an environmental sustainability approach, ancient prairies be damned.
Dunn likely wanted the luncheon audience to peg anyone who cares about the environment as fringe hippie-ish, granola-munching, tree-hugging flower children (which, admittedly, some of us may be). The comment was as tone-deaf as it was out of touch with modern efforts toward corporate sustainability, civic responsibility, and the stewardship of natural resources. After all, the airport’s an institution that foments the release of massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.
The puzzling aspect of all of this is the airport’s unwillingness to meet with advocates to discuss alternatives, much less consider actually re-routing the road around Bell Bowl Prairie. Maybe that’s how things were done in the 1960s. The reality is that federal, state, and local taxpayers are those footing the bill for this expansion—and might I add Dunn’s salary. Civic leaders should answer to their constituents, much less the endangered species on public property.
If you haven’t been to Bell Bowl Prairie, here’s a primer (I’d suggest visiting, but the airport has cut off access). It’s home to so many endangered animals, plants, and insects, that it’s challenging to center in on only one but I’ll try. The Rusty Patch Bumble Bee is a federal endangered species—the first of its type to gain endangered status—and exists in only small numbers across its ranges as its population has plummeted in recent decades. The bees are likely in small mammal burrows hibernating underground at the time of this writing.
The mighty efforts of grassroots advocates are what stymied construction at the prairie last fall. If it hadn’t been for a couple of people noticing bulldozers, the opportunity to rescue the prairie may have been lost. Now that a coalition has been built and a lawsuit filed, and because we have those laws mentioned above, there’s still a chance. We can remind Mike Dunn and other appointed and elected leaders that it’s the 2020s.
This following is the first of a few videos I’ve put together about Bell Bowl, this one focused on elected officials and decision makers. In the days ahead, I’ll be sharing more, but please feel free to post, forward, embed, and share as you see fit:
Three ways to help save Bell Bowl Prairie today
Donate to the legal fund: The nonprofit Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves is raising money through GoFundMe to cover legal expenses related to the lawsuit filed last fall.
Write to your legislators: Illinois Environmental Council has made it easy to submit a letter to your legislator to voice your support of Bell Bowl Prairie.
Visit the Save Bell Bowl Prairie website: There are a wealth of resources available on this site including fantastic social media graphics, phone numbers to call, and much more.
The 60s were also a time when ordinary people, through collective action, believed they could influence public policy for the good of society and the planet. Some of us remember those days as a time when almost anything seemed possible. But as with all social movements--civil rights, feminism, environmentalism, democracy itself--there is always backlash from the powerful and moneyed status quo. These battles must be fought over and over and over again. Unfortunately, it's possible that at some point we will have lost too many natural areas and our fate as a species will be sealed. THAT is why people still march with banners and disrupt meetings. The protesters were polite and civilized compared to the machinery that will lay waste to the defenseless animals and plants in Bell Bowl Prairie.
Bob, your story shows how industry and politics, when left hidden from the public eye, do as they please regardless the consequences to these dwindling natural habitats. The threat could be minimized by rerouting the road connecting their warehouses around this modest plot of land. The cost relative to their profits would be infinitesimal. Not one job would be lost. They could demonstrate how they can make loads of money and still respect nature’s minimal needs to survive. But apparently they just don’t care about endangered species and the vanishing lands that are forever lost due to negligence of people like Mike Dunn and our political representation who we expect more of. Please keep up the fight. Simple compromises could avoid this permanent and careless action on their part.