Rockford airport drops Natural Land Institute as Bell Bowl Prairie steward after 44 years

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ROCKFORD — The Greater Rockford Airport Authority passed a resolution Thursday formally rescinding an agreement that gave the Natural Land Institute authority to conduct land management at Bell Bowl Prairie, the site of a $50 million expansion project at the Chicago Rockford International Airport.

The copy of the agreement obtained by the Register Star last month is dated Nov. 1, 1977, but it is not signed. It's unclear whether it was ever officially adopted by airport commissioners.

The pact gave the Natural Land Institute custody of Bell Bowl Prairie for purposes of managing the land while the airport retained ownership of the property. It stipulated that “all future planning will take the prairie's preservation into consideration,” and that “the GRAA will make every effort possible to preserve the prairie in its natural state as long as it does not interfere with the necessary operation of the airport.”

Opinion: Region's economy depends on development of airport's midfield

And while the 25-acre prairie has been left undeveloped for nearly 50 years, airport officials say they need it now to continue growing one of the largest economic engines in the Rockford region.

“The Greater Rockford Airport Authority has grown since 1977 — when it had virtually no air cargo traffic — to now being ranked the 17th largest airport in the nation for air cargo volume,” the new resolution states.

As the country’s 17th largest cargo center, the Chicago Rockford International Airport has a $4.7 billion annual impact on the region and employs more than 8,000 people in the fields of aviation, transportation, logistics and construction.

About $2.1 billion in imported and exported products have traveled through the airport during the first three quarters of 2021, according to the resolution. The airport also now serves more than 230,000 commercial passengers every year.

More opinion: Prairie can survive airport expansion with alternative design

The Natural Land Institute says airport expansion is vital to the local economy and that they aren’t trying to kill the project. They want to work with airport leaders to come up with an alternate plan that allows for economic growth and for Bell Bowl to remain undisturbed.

"We're extremely disappointed that the Airport Authority doesn't want to work with us to care for this ancient prairie that we have stewarded in good faith for several decades and that they won't consider alternative design plans for a new road and expansion that will save it," Kim Johnsen, Natural Land Institute's director of marketing and membership, said in an email.

Construction on the expansion project has been halted since August, when rusty patched bumble bees were found on Bell Bowl, triggering a consultation with state and federal agencies about how to avoid harming the species.

A sign outside the Chicago Rockford International Airport is seen here on Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2019, in Rockford.
A sign outside the Chicago Rockford International Airport is seen here on Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2019, in Rockford.

Construction was slated to resume Nov. 1, but the airport announced in late October it was pushing the restart date to March 1, 2022, because the consultation was not finished.

The Natural Land Institute, which was seeking a temporary restraining order to stop the bulldozers from resuming their work on Nov. 1, declared a minor victory with the announcement.

Conservationists say the airport's current plans call for installation of a service road straight through the prairie. They are recommending the airport use an existing road, Cessna Drive, to reach AAR's maintenance facility.

Zack Oakley, Greater Rockford Airport Authority deputy director of operations and planning, said in a phone interview last month that Cessna Drive is not part of future development plans and would eventually be removed because it is not a service road.

“It’s unsafe for the current truck traffic,” he said. “It wasn't designed for that use."

Previously: Preservationists continue to fight to save Bell Bowl Prairie from airport expansion

Oakley said the Federal Aviation Administration is reviewing the new road's impact, and that the only way the plan would be changed is if officials find that it endangers the rusty patched bumble bees.

"If there are any impacts, they will let us know, but there is no indication that that's the case," he said.

The airport's project includes a 90,000 square-foot cargo facility that opened in June, a 100,000 square-foot cargo facility that’s nearly finished and a parking ramp for six 747 airliners.

Jim Hagerty is a freelance correspondent.

This article originally appeared on Rockford Register Star: Rockford airport drops Natural Land Institute as Bell Bowl manager

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