“Given the fragile nature of landscapes with high natural quality, there is no substitute for their preservation and proper management. No amount of de novo restoration can obviate concern over their passing.” —Gerould Wilhelm
“Save the Bell Bowl Prairie.” What? I was perplexed. “Bell Bowl Prairie?” Where was that? Suddenly, last week, there were news references everywhere to this prairie, about to be destroyed in an expansion project at the Chicago-Rockford International Airport. I’ve hiked many prairies in Illinois—but this was not one of them. So I began reading.
I learned that Bell Bowl Prairie is a remnant dry gravel hill prairie. Uh, oh. While I find this exciting, is there nothing less sexy than “dry gravel hill prairie” to those who don’t know and love prairies? I kept reading.
I discovered that the Bell Bowl Prairie is a “high-quality Category 1 Natural Areas Inventory Site.” It is a remnant prairie. What does that mean, exactly? And why does it matter?
A remnant is simply a tract of original tallgrass prairie that has never been plowed or developed. At one time, Illinois had almost 22 million acres of original tallgrass prairie. The Illinois Natural History Survey estimates we have only about 2,300 high quality acres of original remnant prairie left in Illinois. Where did our original prairies go?
Much of the fertile tallgrass prairie was lost to agriculture after the invention and mass marketing of the John Deere plow in the mid-1800’s. At the same time, as early European settlers moved in, the fires that kept the tallgrass prairie healthy—fires set by lightning and Native Americans—were suppressed. Shrubs and trees quickly took over. Developments were built that included “prairie” in the names of streets, businesses, and apartment complexes, even as they erased the very prairie from which they took their name.
Are these developments bad things? Was John Deere a terrible man?” Of course not. We need places to live and to work. I love to eat, and I bet you do, too. And yet.
Even as we gained agriculture and homes and shops we lost something valuable. We didn’t realize how valuable it was, until the eleventh hour, when the original prairies were almost completely eradicated. As Joni Mitchell sings, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”
What was left were small patches of prairie. Remnants. And remnant prairies, as Gerould Wilhelm, co-author of Flora of the Chicago Region, tells us, are irreplaceable.
The Bell Bowl prairie may be destroyed by the Chicago-Rockford International Airport in Illinois in the airport’s November expansion. Why does it matter? With all of our advances in learning to plant and restore prairie, we haven’t learned how to replicate an original remnant. Remnant prairies are finite natural resources. You can’t plant another one. When we lose a prairie remnant, it is gone forever. And Bell Bowl Prairie, because it is a remnant prairie, cannot be replicated. We can’t replace this prairie.
Why can’t we dig up the soil and move the prairie remnant to another location? Would that work? Experts say no. Moving pieces of the Bell Bowl Prairie would destroy it. And many of the creatures there, including the federally endangered Rusty Patched Bumble Bees, would be in peril.
Balancing the needs of people and the natural world is fraught with tension. There’s nothing wrong with an airport expansion. Until it takes away one of the last pieces of the prairie we have in Illinois. Until it erases an important part of our heritage. Until “The Prairie State” no longer protects our landscape of home.
How can you help save the Bell Bowl Prairie? Check out the links included at the end of this post. And then close your computer, turn off your phone, and go for a hike on a prairie close to you. While you’re there, say a little prayer for the Bell Bowl Prairie. That this prairie will be here for our children. Our grandchildren. Our great-grandchildren. Whether or not they ever see the Bell Bowl Prairie, future generations will know that we cared enough to make a difference by speaking up.
They’ll know we said, “This matters.”
Writes Gerould Wilhelm in Flora of the Chicago Region:
“If we continue to preserve and manage remnant landscapes, one can hope that if nascent generations and generations yet unborn develop an abiding empathy for the free-living world of nature, perhaps there will be enough diversity to begin to knit together and reclaim lands around us with much of their comely diversity and complexity. Perhaps, one day, children could grow up, seeing themselves as part of nature, in an environment so beautiful and composed that it can inspire not only the healing of the landscape but the nourishing of the human soul as well… .”
I’ve never stepped foot on the Bell Bowl Prairie. And I never need to do so. It’s enough to know these precious remnants still exist in Illinois.
Bell Bowl Prairie is slated for destruction. There’s no time to waste. What are we waiting for?
Let’s save it.
Want to learn more about Bell Bowl Prairie and what you can do to ensure it survives for future generations? Explore the links below:
Consider this information from Strategies for Stewards from Woods to Prairies
Read Cassi Saari’s excellent blog post about the Bell Bowl Prairie.
Join an online meeting tonight, Tuesday October 12, from 6-7:30 p.m. Click here.
Read this piece about the Bell Bowl Prairie from WTTV.
Tell others about Bell Bowl Prairie, so they can help too!
Gerould Wilhelm is co-author with Laura Rericha of Flora of the Chicago Region: A Floristic and Ecological Synthesis, an indispensible guide to floristic quality and plant and insect associations for any steward in the Chicago Region. The quotes from Flora of the Chicago Region here are used with his permission.
Join Cindy for a program or class!
Tomorrow—Wednesday, October 13, 10-11:30 a.m. (CT): “A Cultural History of Trees in America” ONLINE! Offered through The Morton Arboretum. Join Cindy from the comfort of your couch and discover the way trees have influenced our history, our music and literature, and the way we think about the world. Register here.
Friday, December 3: WINTER PRAIRIE WONDERS–ONLINE, 10-11:30 a.m. (CT): Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass! Make yourself a cup of hot tea, snuggle under a warm afghan, and join prairie steward and writer Cindy Crosby virtually for this interactive online immersion into the tallgrass prairie in winter. See the aesthetic beauty of the snow-covered grasses and wildflowers in cold weather through colorful images of winter on the prairies. Follow animal tracks to see what creatures are out and about, and see how many you can identify. Learn how birds, pollinators, and mammals use winter prairie plants; the seeds for nourishment and the grasses and spent wildflowers for overwintering, protection, and cover. Then, listen as Cindy shares brief readings about the prairie in winter that will engage your creativity and nourish your soul. Registration information here.