By Kevin Haas
Rock River Current
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ROCKFORD — The Chicago Rockford International Airport said Tuesday that it has no record of an agreement with the Natural Land Institute to manage prairie land the airport owns and, if any such agreement did exist, it is terminated effective immediately.
The airport delivered that message to the nonprofit environmental organization in response to a federal lawsuit Natural Land Institute filed last month. The lawsuit aims to protect the Bell Bowl Prairie, where an endangered bee has been found, from being bulldozed for airport construction.
The Greater Rockford Airport Authority “is not aware of any written agreement between Natural Land Institute and the Authority,” a letter from Paul Cicero, chairman of the airport authority, to the institute states. “However, if any such agreement does exist, notice is hereby given that any such contract or agreement is terminated effective immediately.”
Natural Land Institute has said it has standing for its lawsuit because of years it spent managing the prairie.
“For decades, even if they can’t find the written agreement, there was this tacit agreement because we coordinated with them on all our activities,” said Kerry Leigh, executive director of Natural Land Institute, in a phone interview Tuesday. “We’ve been managing that prairie for decades with our partners with full approval of the airport authority.”
Management of the land has included removal of invasive species and controlled burns, Leigh said.
The airport shared the message Cicero sent to the institute Tuesday as part of a news release about its response to the federal lawsuit.
“We have a responsibility to the Rockford region and our taxpayers. We know the importance and impact our operations have on the lives of every resident,” Cicero said in the release. “Our cargo operations have provided access to critical products for COVID response, materials that fuel the supply chains of our businesses, and other essential daily supplies for our residents.
“The strength and capabilities of our operations brought normalcy to daily life and supported economies in northern Illinois during the past 18 months. In the last year, RFD and its partners have created over 1,000 new private-industry jobs, bringing the total jobs on the airport campus to over 8,000. These are irreplaceable contributions that directly impact family households and local businesses by billions of dollars each year.”
The airport is one of the region’s key economic drives and is home to more than 70 businesses that employ more than 8,000 people and contribute millions in real estate taxes to fund local government operations, according to the airport authority. Some of the airport’s recent additions include a $19 million UPS expansion, a new Amazon Air Hub and partnership with AAR/United Airlines for airline maintenance.
The Natural Land Institute and other members of the Save Bell Bowl Prairie movement have tried to halt airport construction in hopes they can work with the authority on a new design that allows the expansion to go forward in a way that preserves the rare gravel prairie.
“They keep saying how important the airport is and we keep saying ‘we think so, too.’ We think the airport expansion is extremely important … and so is the prairie. They can’t seem to understand it’s both,” Leigh said. “We agree with the airport that this expansion is needed and critical for the region’s growth, we’ve never disagreed.”
The airport said it will continue to work with the Federal Aviation Administration, Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to further evaluate the potential environmental impact of its $50 million cargo expansion.
While that consultation is ongoing, the airport will limit access to the land being evaluated to ensure preservation and safety, it said in the news release.
“It’s important that we preserve the integrity of our own property, especially as we work with our governmental partners to complete all environmental consultation,” said Zack Oakley, deputy director of operations and planning at RFD. “We are entering the busiest season for cargo operations at the Airport. For the safety of all, we’re restricting any outside access to Airport property.”
Members of Save Bell Bowl Prairie hoped to gain access to the land so they could put pinflags around the boundaries of the prairie. Construction work that started this summer led to roughly 10 acres of the prairie land being bulldozed before the discovery of the endangered rusty patched bumble bee halted construction until Nov. 1. Construction was further delayed to March 1 as part of an agreement by the airport to further study potential environmental impact.
There are still roughly 14 acres of prairie land left in the area, including about 5 acres of high-quality prairie, according to NLI.
The cargo expansion is about 65% complete, according to the airport. It says the Bell Bowl Prairie land is critical to both this expansion and future growth of RFD facilities and runways.