Dear Governor Pritzker,
Congratulations and thank you for your leadership in getting the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act across the finish line. “As of today,” you rightly triumphed at your press conference, “Illinois is a force for good, for an environmental future we can be proud of.”
On the heels of this landmark victory, we need to call upon your leadership again — to stop the destruction of Bell Bowl Prairie and support its dedication as an Illinois Nature Preserve.
The fact is, Illinois long has been a force for good in securing an environmental future we can be proud of. Rockford native George Fell was the driving force behind the founding of The Nature Conservancy — now the largest conservation organization in the world — before returning to Illinois to champion passage of the Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act. This Act not only recognizes the value of our state’s natural heritage, it provides the means to protect its last remnant natural lands for their “best and highest use.” Permanently.
The first such act of its kind, the Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act proved the template for nearly every other state in the nation to emulate. This is among the reasons why the highest award offered by the Natural Areas Association — the national umbrella organization for natural area practitioners throughout the United States — is named for George Fell.
Inevitably, there are those who seek to subvert both the spirit and the letter of the law. Civic leaders in Lake County sought to develop “one of the richest, biologically most diverse areas in the state” into a golf course, marina and swimming pool. Instead, with the active support of the governor, the globally rare sand prairie and related habitats within Illinois Beach State Park became Illinois’ first dedicated Illinois Nature Preserve.
Civic leaders in south suburban Cook County sought to develop a swath of the very last remnant of Chicago Lake Plain prairie into a truck stop. The land they targeted was in the process of being proposed as an addition to the existing Gensburg-Markham Nature Preserve — a National Natural Landmark as well as a dedicated Illinois Nature Preserve. Arguing that “not only endangered species deserve protection, but also human beings” and “to give some consideration to economic development of the area,” civic leaders preemptively brought in the bulldozers to destroy the prairie before it could be formally dedicated as an addition to the nature preserve. With the help of the US Army Corps of Engineers, the bulldozers were halted. The land was added to the preserve, which remains one of the crown jewels of the Illinois Nature Preserves system, The Nature Conservancy and Northeastern Illinois University.
In their bid to destroy Bell Bowl Prairie, airport officials in Rockford fundamentally fall back on the same antiquated argument: economic development trumps all. As if plowing up 99.9 percent of the Prairie State’s original prairie weren’t enough. As if paving over the last 1/10th of one percent of remaining natural land in Illinois would result in the state’s economic salvation.
George Fell’s father, Egbert Fell — a prominent Rockford physician and author of The Flora of Winnebago County — initially saved Bell Bowl Prairie from destruction in 1957 by virtue of a handshake deal with the head of the Greater Rockford Airport Authority, which had proposed using the gravel hill prairie as substrate for a new runway. Within a decade, George Fell was compelled to fight to save Bell Bowl Prairie from being repurposed as runway substrate again. With overwhelming community support and strong editorial support, Governor Samuel H. Shapiro intervened to save the prairie. Since then, it has been under the expert care and stewardship of the Natural Land Institute, also founded by George Fell.
George Fell’s legacy includes more than 600 dedicated Illinois Nature Preserves, scattered among nearly every one of our 102 counties. He also awakened an entire generation to the beauty, wonder and ecological imperative of the natural area wonders yet remaining in Illinois. And that generation has inspired the next generation of passionate nature protectors of all ages, from all backgrounds, all walks of life, throughout the entire state.
An assault on the likes of Bell Bowl Prairie is an assault on the last of Illinois’ natural heritage. It is an affront to the growing army of professionals and volunteers who dedicate their livelihoods and their lives to stewarding the last of our natural area wonders for future generations. It is a white flag of abdication of the leadership role Illinois once had among the many states who modeled their own natural areas preservation
George Fell was a true Force of Nature. Governor Pritzker, we call upon you to be a true “force for good.” To save Bell Bowl Prairie from being paved over, to support its dedication as an Illinois Nature Preserve. History, precedent and the active interventions of past governors are on your side. Moving forward with green energy, protecting the prairie heritage of the Prairie State — we can do both, “for an environmental future we can be proud of.”
Author, Force of Nature: George Fell, Founder of the Natural Areas Movement
Advisor, Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves
CEO, Roger Tory Peterson Institute