By Kevin Haas
Rock River Current
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ROCKFORD — Bulldozers were idle and Bell Bowl Prairie was quiet at midnight on Nov. 1, a day when construction was once slated restart inside the rare native prairie.
But a few hundred yards away conservationists were keeping watch to make sure things stayed quiet.
A small group of people have kept tabs on the prairie since the Chicago Rockford Airport Authority agreed to halt construction until March 1 and redesign a portion of its expansion. The group even keeps a sign-up sheet to make sure key times are filled for people to either drive past or peer at the land through binoculars.
“It’s not that we’re not trusting the airport’s going to hold to their word. It would look pretty terrible, I think, if they went ahead and moved forward,” said Jessie Crow Mermel, a master naturalist who has worked with the Save Bell Bowl Prairie movement, including organizing the prairie watchdog effort.
“One of the concerns now is there are so many different contractors and construction companies out there working around the prairie that there is some concern the boundaries of the prairie would get impeded.”
Access to the land is closed and protected by security, so the group watches from a distance. However, the Natural Land Institute is attempting to gain access to the land so it can put pinflags around key places of prairie so that contractors and monitors can recognize places that must be preserved.
The regular check-ins are another display of the dedication of the Save Bell Bowl Prairie movement, Mermel said.
“Throughout this whole movement I’ve been really awed by the community support and all the different ways that people have offered their gifts and their talents and whatever they can do to make sure that this prairie is saved,” Mermel said. “It completely strengthens my appreciation for what an activated and dedicated community there is to assure the protection of the prairie.”
There were concerns from some that bulldozers would roll at 12:01 a.m. Nov. 1 despite the agreement, said Paul Baits, president of the Natural Land Institute’s board of trustees.
“We have read about stories of other natural areas where the owners think that there’s going to be pressure to preserve, so they rush out and bulldoze the whole property,” he said. “Well now what are you going to do, it’s gone.”
But, he said, the watchdog work happening now is intended to keep an eye out for intrusion, intended or not, by workers in the area.
“If other work is being done anywhere in the vicinity that obviously sets what the airport authority would consider to be an irrevocable path, then we have to catch it early,” Baits said.
The group’s ultimate goal is to be able to work with the airport on a design for its expansion that spares the prairie.
“We’re not here to cause conflict,” said Judy Barnard, vice president of the Natural Land Institute’s board and a commissioner with the Forest Preserves of Winnebago County. “We’re here to try to cause collaboration on this.”
Related: Bulldozing Bell Bowl Prairie. Stop. Telegram campaign aims to save land from airport expansion
The $50 million dollar cargo expansion will create up to 600 permanent jobs along with hundreds of construction jobs. The airport’s cargo operations have boomed as e-commerce grows, and last year it was ranked as the fastest-growing cargo airport in the world.
Construction started on the project in summer, but it was halted in late August after an endangered rusty patched bumblebee was found on site. Some of the prairie was already destroyed during early stages of construction, but about 14 acres are left, including about 5 acres of high-quality prairie, according to the Natural Land Institute, which used to maintain the land.
“Actually having our eyes on it, it kind of feels like a connection to the space that we’re not allowed on,” Mermel said. “That feels good to people and I feel like that’s a big reason folks are compelled to go out there.”