The Rockford airport has begun construction in Bell Bowl Prairie after the Federal Aviation Administration approved an alternate plan for a roadway through the prairie. Bell Bowl Prairie is home to the federally endangered rusty patched bumblebee and has been at the center of a dispute between the airport and environmentalists since 2021.
The Chicago Tribune states that environmentalists are saying that the road, part of a $50 million airport cargo expansion project, should be rerouted to the east or southeast, where it would avoid the highest-quality prairie and maximize overall prairie preservation.
"Chicago Rockford International Airport will retain more than six acres of the Bell Bowl Prairie. This will include more than three acres of high-quality prairie. Any excavation and shrub and brush clearing work in the project area will occur between October 15 through March 15 to avoid impacts to the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee and avoid the prime nesting seasons for the black-billed cuckoo and the upland sandpiper."
Statement from the FAA
Once past March 15, the airport will have to wait until October to resume any activities that could destroy the bumblebee's habitat. Endangered species laws say that a habitat needs to be protected when a rare organism is on the property, but once it leaves, the habitat can be disturbed.
State and federal agencies are allowing the road through Bell Bowl to proceed in part because there are larger, and likely better, rusty patched bumblebee habitats within 10 kilometers (or 6.2 miles) of the prairie, according to government documents.
WBEZ Chicago reports that the fight over an 8,000 remnant prairie in the middle of one of the country's largest cargo airports has unfolded over the past two years and put the spotlight on Illinois' dwindling prairie ecosystems.
The Natural Land Institute, one of the key conservation groups in the region, has maintained that the airport began the project in 2021 without calling its former conservation partner. When the project began, the Bell Bowl consisted of about 25 acres, but previous construction has reduced that amount to the current 15. The expansion is about two-thirds completed.
The fast growing cargo airport has been on an expansion boom driven by growth in international shipping and its role as a cargo hub for Amazon and UPS. For a depressed region that was once a Rust Belt poster child, the airport, which employs 8,500 people who move $3 billion in international goods annually, is an economic engine that has lifted the region.
The expansion plan would add another 50,000 square feet for new cargo tenants and 600 new permanent jobs according to the airport. The FAA said in a written statement that the airport will retain more than six acres of the Bell Bowl Prairie. This includes more than three acres of high-quality prairie. Any excavation and shrub and brush clearing work in the project area will occur between October 15 through March 15 to avoid impacts to the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee.
Posted by Judy Lamelza