Header Photo by Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco

Bell Bowl Prairie

This page is dedicated to news and information about Bell Bowl Prairie, located on the Chicago Rockford International Airport property. The prairie has no legal protection status and the current expansion plans for the Airport threaten to destroy it (October 2021). This 25-acre remnant prairie includes 4.88 acres of high quality prairie with species listed on the INAI (Illinois Natural Areas Inventory). See also this website dedicated to Save Bell Bowl Prairie.

In the video link below, Jack White, former director of the INAI, talks about the rare and fragile dry gravel Bell Bowl Prairie. Watch the video here.

Read about why Bell Bowl Prairie exists and why it s valuable: Bell Bowl Prairie and Chicago Rockford International Airport, by Jack White

Action Alert: Sign a letter to Governor Pritzker and Legislators HERE.

As of October 7 the Action Alert is also being sent to Representative Vella, Representative West, Representative Sosnowski, Senator Stadelman and Senator Syverson, as well as Senator Durbin, Senator Duckworth, and Mayor McNamara.

Use this list: Bell Bowl Contact List to contact local leaders and elected officials and demand that they take steps to protect Bell Bowl Prairie.

Keep in the Loop of Communication

Follow NLI on Facebook at Natural Land Institute and join the Facebook Group: Save Bell Bowl Prairie.

Follow us on Twitter @NLI1958

Follow us on Instagram @NLI1958

Use #SaveBellBowlPrairie in your social media posts about Bell Bowl Prairie.

Sign up for email news about Bell Bowl Prairie at info@naturalland.org. Put “Add me to the Bell Bowl Prairie email distribution list” in the subject line.

Our next Save Bell Bowl Prairie Public Meeting

Tuesday, October 19 at 6:00 p.m. at Burpee Museum of Natural History, 737 N. Main Street, Rockford IL, 61103

Zoom link:  https://us02web.zoom.us/j/87869115878 Meeting ID: 878 6911 5878 One tap mobile +13126266799,,87869115878# US (Chicago)

Sharing Comments

Kerry Leigh – Executive Director, NLI – OP ED

How the Chicago Rockford International Airport Can Be The Hero and Save the Bell Bowl Prairie.

On behalf of all concerned citizens for the protection of an ancient, unique and very special Rockford, and Illinois habitat, the Natural Land Institute (NLI) would like to offer a proposal to the airport for protecting an ancient gravel prairie with creative design solutions to their expansion plans. The following solutions are proposed to avoid the destruction of the Bell Bowl Prairie that is proposed at the Chicago Rockford International Airport.

As a start, opening a dialogue with representatives of the local environmental groups in the region would go a long way to reducing the mistrust that is accumulating.

Additionally, there are a number of creative site design and engineering approaches that could substantially reduce the required footprint of the project and thereby reduce the need to impact the prairie.

  • All of the parking lots (and perhaps a portion of the roadways) could be designed with permeable paving. Stormwater detention for the entire site could potentially be accommodated by over-sizing the storage in the void spaces in the permeable paving sub-base. (As an aside, the design of the site for the new Food Shed Co-op in Woodstock will incorporate all site stormwater detention needs beneath permeable paving, thereby eliminating the need for a stand-alone detention basin.)
  • Onsite landscape areas could be considered for rain gardens and bioswales, thereby providing an opportunity to infiltrate and filter polluted runoff before it is routed to detention storage underlying the permeable paving.
  • Consideration should also be given to utilizing green roofs for proposed buildings to reduce stormwater runoff and associated detention basin capacity.
  • Site design criteria could be evaluated to look for opportunities to reduce the size and dimensions of parking lots and roadways. In particular, it is known that roadway width criteria and parking lot sizing (e.g., the number of parking stalls and their dimensions) often are very conservative leading to over-sized facilities.
  • These green infrastructure design approaches would then allow space for the building to be sited to avoid impacts to the prairie.

These types of green infrastructure and innovative site design approaches are broadly referenced in the Kishwaukee Corridor Green Infrastructure Plan that was developed for the multi-thousand acre landscape immediately east of the Rockford Airport. This plan also discusses the economic benefits and tradeoffs in implementing green infrastructure design approaches.

These green infrastructure policies and site design concepts were widely shared with local government officials from Rockford, Winnebago County and neighboring jurisdictions and the concepts are relevant to this project.  The Executive Summary and the full plan are available here.

We understand that there is significant federal investment in this expansion, and that this economic development and the jobs created will be an economic boon to the area.  We also believe that the airport expansion doesn’t have to occur at the expense of this ancient, and very special fragment of all that is left of the original Illinois. The old thinking of ‘us’ verses ‘them’, or the environment versus progress, has been replaced with the concept of ‘both, and’.  Conservationists recognize that they are no longer just protecting an individual species, or a habitat, but that we are, ultimately, saving us.  We are not separate from nature, we are a part of nature and the benefits that nature provides us are valuable. The vast array of ecosystem services for prairie that includes carbon sequestration, rainfall and runoff infiltration, erosion control and nutrient reduction are valued at several thousand dollars per acre.

We are asking that our Governor, Senators and Representatives facilitate a conversation with the Airport Authority, Illinois Department of Transportation, and the engineering consultants, Crawford Murphy Tilley, and our engineering consultant to seriously look at the site design and incorporate green infrastructure practices to allow the prairie to become part of an established approach to protecting this special place. The Airport Authority could be the hero of this story. These practices are not new and are used widely across the country.

Lastly, let us consider and discuss ways that this prairie can be protected.  NLI and its partners have managed this prairie for the Airport for several years, and we pledge to continue that partnership and activity.

The Mayor of the City of Rockford has signed a resolution on October 5th to support Rockford as a Bird City which is a state designation that recognizes municipalities for their work to protect bird habitat. The Transform Rockford plan is committed to make Rockford one of the top 25 communities by 2025, and the metrics have a significant environmental component, particularly in regard to health and air and water quality.  Tragically, this project is currently participating in the 6th great extinction across the globe.  This design approach could change all that to be an incredible win with good PR for the Airport, the City of Rockford and the state of Illinois. We encourage interested citizens to contact their local and state Senators and representatives and to sign the Action Alert located on the Save Bell Bowl Prairie Facebook page and the Natural Land Institute’s website.  www.naturalland.org

Jim Roberts – retired pastor:

Bell Bowl Prairie is an 8000 year old ancient artifact of what was
22 million acres of prairie in Illinois (only 0.1 % remain).
But the prairie is silent, has no cash, no board, or place at
the table, don’t know our language, haven’t been consulted,
heard, or listened to.  They are not coming to the airport
board meeting.  What would they say if we knew their language?
I write as if the queen bees, the rare habitat, the sacred soil,
and prairie flowers’ lives depend on it… and they, for real, do.
Can we find our voice to finally speak for these little ones, after
we have not seen, not heard, maybe not cared about them,
as they went about holding the world together?

It’s not time for more studies or meetings. Aretha was right!
It’s time for a little respect!  It’s past time to honor what is
ancient and sacred.
I think we are a smart species.  We have a big brain,
deep pockets, big plans, and also a soul.
We can have both a modern airport and an ancient prairie.
Blog Posts

The range of the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee

The Rusty Patched Bumble Bee is on the Federal Endangered Species List and was observed at Bell Bowl Prairie in the summer of 2021. This image shows the historic range in gray, currently likely to be present in red, unlikely presence but important for conservation in yellow. (Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Media Coverage

The Rock River Times, Oct. 13, 2021 – Kerry Leigh’s Op Ed on page 3

WIFR TV23 News, Oct. 12, 2021 – Save Bell Bowl Prairie meeting held at Burpee Museum

WREX TV 13 News, Oct. 12, 2021 – Residents gather to discuss next steps for Bell Bowl Prairie

Chicago Tribune, Oct. 12, 2021 Op Ed_Robbie Telfer_Chicago Tribune 101221

Northern Public Radio (WNIJ/WNIU) – October 7, 2021 Bustos supports development on Bell Bowl Prairie, with environmental considerations

WTTW News – October 6, 2021 Race Is on To Save ‘Primeval’ Patch of Illinois Prairie Threatened by Rockford Airport Cargo Expansion

Kerry Leigh was a guest on The Mike Novak Show on Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021 to talk about the importance of Bell Bowl Prairie.

Northern Public Radio (WNIJ/WNIU) – September 29, 2021 – Rusty Patched Bumble Bee stalls construction over Bell Bowl Prairie

Northern Public Radio (WNIJ/WNIU) – September 24, 2021 – Construction Over Bell Bowl Prairie Continues Later This Year

Rockford Register Star – September 24, 2021 – Bumblebees, cuckoos among endangered wildlife group wants to save at Rockford airport

Rockford Register Star – September 24, 2021 – Photos by Scott P. Yates

MYSTATELINE News – September 23, 2021 – Local environmentalists fight to save prairie at Chicago Rockford International Airport

WIFR TV23 News – September 21, 2021 – RFD continues its expansion project on one of Illinois’ few remaining prairies

WREX TV13 News – September 21, 2021 – Rockford airport expansion has conservationists concerned

MYSTATELINE News – September 20, 2021 – Environmentalists work to save prairie at Chicago Rockford International Airport

Public Meetings

October 12, 2021

NLI, Sinnissippi Audubon Society and Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves hosted a public meeting at Burpee Museum of Natural History to update the public on work of the respective organizations and many volunteers to save Bell Bowl Prairie. Speakers included Kim Johnsen (NLI Director of Marketing & Membership), Zach Grycan (NLI Director of Stewardship), Amy Doll (Director of Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves), Kerry Leigh (Executive Director of NLI), Jennifer Kuroda (President of Sinnissippi Audubon Society), and many attendees. After the presentations attendees broke into groups to brainstorm ideas for public advocacy and action, political avenues, regulatory, legal and other expertise, community gatherings, and for general ideas. Participants reconvened and shared ideas that were discussed. Individuals were empowered to take specific action steps from the ideas presented, as well as the to take the following action steps:

  1. Spread the word (tell 10 people this week)
  2.  Write to the Mayor of Rockford and the airport commissioners asking them to support a green redesign (see contacts list above)
  3. Fill out the IEC Action Alert (letter to Gov. Pritzker above)
  4. If there are others that can help connect them with Don Miller, dmiller@naturalland.org
  5. Be prepared to show up on Oct. 23 (to the Greater Rockford Airport Authority board meeting)

Link to the Zoom recording of the meeting here.  Use passcode: Rh8C9Bh$

Link to slides from the meeting are here: Save Bell Bowl Prairie Presentation Oct 12

September 30, 2021

NLI and Sinnissippi Audubon co-hosted a public meeting about Bell Bowl Prairie on Thursday, September 30, 2021. Speakers included Kerry Leigh (NLI Executive Director), Barbara Williams, Don Miller and Jennifer Kuroda (President of Sinnissippi Audubon Society). A question and answer session followed. It was announced that Don Miller will be coordinating efforts to save Bell Bowl Prairie. A working group will be established to help with this effort. Contact Don at dmiller@naturalland.org.

Watch/listen to the Zoom recording of this public meeting here.


Photo of Jack and Barbara White by Joni Denker

John (Jack) White, former director of the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory, tells Greater Rockford Airport Authority that Bell Bowl Prairie on the airport property is Outstanding and Why

Read Jack’s statement that he read to the GRAA at the Sep. 23 board meeting and a follow up statement about the prairie and the many reasons why “Bell Bowl Prairie is a rare treasure. And fragile: if you try to move it, it will disintegrate and die away, replaced by weeds.”

Click here: Bell_Bowl_Prairie_statements_by_John_White to read it.

Please share it with everyone you know and on all of your social media accounts.


Message from the Executive Director, Kerry Leigh

As many of you have heard, the Chicago Rockford International Airport expansion plans include development on this prairie, a portion of which is an Illinois Natural Areas Inventory Site (INAI) that has not only historic significance to Rockford from the early days of Camp Grant and the Civilian Conservation Corps, but hosts a significant natural dry gravel prairie community that supports rare and endangered species. It is one of the few of these left in Illinois and many migratory birds rest there on their journey, attracting birders from across the Midwest. NLI’s founder, George Fell, fought to protect this piece of our historic Illinois landscape and at one time saved it from the bulldozers.

The entire prairie is 25 acres, with 4.88 acres listed as the INAI. The Natural Land Institute and its many partners have a long history of stewarding the Bell Bowl Prairie. With our partners from the Byron Forest Preserve District, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), the Boone County Conservation District, the Forest Preserves of Winnebago County, the Rockford Park District, the Winnebago County Soil and Water Conservation District, Pheasants Forever, The Nature Conservancy and others, the Natural Land Institute has participated in and coordinated stewardship days over the years to clear out invasive species and protect the site’s natural diversity. Just this year the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee, a federally endangered species, was observed on the prairie.

Since that discovery, NLI has participated in conversations with the IDNR and the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board and the Airport Authority. The IDNR has re-opened their consultation process to re-evaluate the development request.  This consultation process is only advisory, and working with the parties to alter the footprint of the development is also being discussed.

In our opinion the economic benefits to our community of the airport expansion are not greater than the ecological benefits we receive from this rare and remnant habitat. Less than 1/100th of 1% of our native prairie landscape remains. We can no longer in all good conscience call ourselves the Prairie State. NLI believes that a responsible and sustainable solution is possible and will do everything we can to help make that happen. NLI therefore fully supports a revision to the development plans to avoid the prairie, and commits to assisting the airport with future management of this important, historic, and rare prairie.

NLI is deeply saddened by these current plans and urges you to contact your state and local representatives to let them know how important this historic remnant prairie is to the biodiversity of our state, and to Rockford. You can keep track of what’s happening on the Facebook group ‘Save Bell Bowl Prairie


Bell Bowl Prairie Plant List
Environmental Assessment – Chicago Rockford International Airport
Bell Bowl Prairie – From Wikipedia


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