Guest Column: Nomination for Sierra Club ‘Nasty Nine’

Guest Column: Nomination for Sierra Club ‘Nasty Nine’

By Sylvia Pagel

The Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) project for the improvement of Route 70 (Trask Bridge Road) deserves to be at the top of the Sierra Club’s list of blatant environmental disgraces. A drive from Rockford to Durand on Route 70 will make it obvious that this IDOT road improvement project was planned and carried out with no consideration for environmental protection. While everyone agreed that this stretch of Trask Bridge Road needed resurfacing, IDOT took the liberty of turning a needed project into a wasteful pork barrel project costing millions more than necessary. Literally every tree, shrub, and blade of grass is bulldozed out of the newly expanded right-of-way.

Trask Bridge Road was originally a dirt wagon trail connecting the newly thriving settlement of Rockford with other trading points in Durand, Lena, and Brodhead. The route led to a ferry crossing on the Pecatonica River that later became Trask Bridge. Many native trees lined the route, including bur oak, hickory, hackberry, maple, elm, chokecherry, mulberry, wafer ash, hawthorn, and wild plum. All that weren’t previously destroyed, will be during the final state of construction beginning this spring. While the actual paved roadway is only being extended one foot in each lane, the new right-of-way (purchased under threat of eminent domain) has been increased 40 feet to 100 feet from the original boundaries. In many places the new right-of-way is being scraped down to bedrock. All the trees and fencerows from Meridian Road into Rockford will be bulldozed out this summer. Many have already been marked with pink Xs as the survey crew moves east. Hundreds of trees have already been removed, cut up, and burned. All the grasses, flowers, and topsoil will be scraped away.

At the end of last year’s construction season, the remaining fragment of original prairie along the Trask Bridge Road right-of-way was destroyed. That small prairie remnant was bulldozed down to bedrock in November 2002. It represented a surviving microcosm of a variety of native prairie grasses and wildflowers. Until this year, even in the bleakest spring, a few pasque flowers could be found blooming on the south-facing rocky slope around Easter time. In favorable spring weather, dozens of pasque flowers were followed by pussytoes, wild rose, blazing star, coneflowers, vervain, boneset, milkweeds, prairie clover, leadplant, and goldenrod amongst bluestem and sideoats. All these prairie indicator species and their associated insects, and other fauna had survived in that remnant on the right-of-way until IDOT destroyed it (at taxpayer’s expense). While some people try to dismiss roadside habitat as marginal, it is also the last sanctuary of the last survivors. The right-of-way was habitat for meadow mice, voles, gophers, and woodchucks. Ground nesting birds such as meadowlarks, grass sparrows, pheasants, and teal relied on the few unmowed areas. Larger shrubs and trees were home and hunting territory to a variety of other birds including owls, robins, thrush, redwings, dickcissels, orioles, goldfinches, cuckoos, kingbirds, and woodpeckers. At the very least it was better than nothing, which is what is left now thanks to IDOT.

The planning and engineering of the Route 70 project is a blatant example of unnecessary habitat destruction. As the project progresses, the resurfacing was completed long before the habitat along the right-of-way was removed. IDOT claims they are improving the right-of-way because they reseed the shoulder eventually (with non-native species) and replant some trees (which will look the same in about 200 years). But they will never be able to replace the prairie remnant they destroyed; that gene pool is gone forever and nothing is left in that area except bedrock. It is apparent that none of IDOT’s planners, engineers, or employees involved in the Route 70 project has ever heard of environmental ethics.

The final phase of construction from Meridian Road into Rockford began this spring. All the remaining vegetation along the right-of-way has been or will be destroyed by the completion of the project. This IDOT project was selected by the Blackhawk Sierra Club as the worst of the “Sinful Six” environmental atrocities.

Sylvia Pagel is a local activist.

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