National Wildlife Refuge Born in Illinois

With its rolling hills, gushing streams, and stunning panoramic views, the new Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge challenges one’s image of the flat, rural Midwest. The landscape looks like one you’d find in a Van Gogh painting of Arles in the south of France.

But no: Hackmatack is Midwestern land, tried and true. It lies in Illinois’ McHenry County, spilling a bit into Walworth County in southeast Wisconsin. With approval from the Department of the Interior, it recently became an official national wildlife refuge – the only refuge that exists within 100 miles of Chicago.

What exactly does this label mean? Essentially, it means that – for all eternity, to the extent that the government is willing and able to help – Hackmatack’s ecosystem will be protected and managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

For supporters, gaining this status required a long battle – about eight years, in fact. What’s interesting about this effort, however, is that it wasn’t driven by typical players in the conservation movement. Rather, the bulk of the work was shouldered by local citizens: some with formal conservation experiences, others simply motivated by the rare beauty of the land in the backyards. They call themselves “Friends of Hackmatack.” 

“This was an advocacy group who really helped do that local work [of] neighbors talking to neighbors,” said member Lenore Beyer-Clow. “This wasn’t a government entity. This was local people who cared.”

In matters of environmental protection, Beyer-Clow is one of the group’s more knowledgeable members. Her day job is policy director at Openlands, a regional conservation group. Openlands was one of several organizations that jumped in to help Friends of Hackmatack. 

Over the past eight years, the group laid out its argument for a wildlife refuge. Hackmatack is a rarity among natural landscapes in the Midwest, its gently rolling hills the product of ancient glaciers melting. It’s the site of endangered habitats, like oak savannas and tall grass prairie, as well as important migration corridors for vulnerable plants and animals. Rare birds, like upland sandpipers and short-eared owls, swoop in and out routinely. The land also contains Nippersink Creek, which carries some of the highest-quality water in the state, according to clean water advocates.

In 2010, that argument was enough to convince Illinois’ and Wisconsin’s four senators – Dick Durbin, Russ Feingold, Herb Kohl and Roland Burris – to write a letter to U.S. Fish & Wildlife asking officials to consider Hackmatack as a possible refuge. The effort, Beyer-Clow notes, was bipartisan and bi-state, and thus carried a unique persuasive power.

A New Name

On August 15, eight years of hope paid off. Ken Salazar, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, came to McHenry County to announce that Hackmatack would get official status as a national wildlife refuge. Clad in blue jeans and a baseball cap, he told an audience of community members that the refuge will help millions better understand the links between humanity and wildlife. It was an emotional climax for those long involved in the campaign.

“It was thrilling and exciting,” Beyer-Clow said. “Early on, when it was a group of us sitting around a kitchen table, I think we thought, ‘Well, this is a dream. This is a great idea.’ Did we all think it was actually going to come together? I don’t know.”

Hackmatack is still in the beginning stages. This month, Salazar marked the official establishment of the refuge. After a few years of land negotiations, conservationists expect these 11,200 acres will be a mosaic of protected lands; some owned by the counties, others coordinated with private owners. 

For Ed Collins, resource manager for McHenry County’s conservation district, Hackmatack represents the region’s simple but powerful allure.

“The Midwest is not the fastest moving target in the world,” he said. “It doesn’t have mountains, and it doesn’t have gisors that are up every hour. It doesn’t have trees that are a thousand years old that you can drive a station wagon through. It’s a subtle beauty. It’s a slow magic.”

According to Collins, Hackmatack contains some of the region’s toughest plants: species that evolved after thousands of years of glaciers melting, fires, dry spells, and other evolutionary shifts to the landscape. Some of these plants are “literally time capsules,” he said, reminding us how much change the land has been through.

Onward

Looking forward, the question lingers: How exactly is Hackmatack going to help locals? The answer – and the challenge – lies in tourism. It’s now up to McHenry County to aggressively market Hackmatack as an escape for urban dwellers who may have no idea it exists. The potential is huge: combined, the populations of Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison and Rockford add up to 12 million people.

But Hackmatack’s secret weapon may be its accessibility. For Chicagoans, it’s only an hour’s drive north or a quick ride on the Metra (the Union Pacific Northwest line stops nearby at Woodstock and McHenry; the Milwaukee North Line stops at Fox Lake.)

But local conservationists want to think bigger, envisioning a train line that one day runs directly into the refuge. They hope, eventually, that Chicago residents turn to Hackmatack for all their weekend vacation needs, rather than beelining past in favor of Wisconsin.

There are huge challenges ahead, too. For one, the refuge itself is not in pristine condition, Collins said.

“That’s what it’s like to live in the upper Midwest, near large metropolitan areas,” he said. “But there are these pockets. It’s as though, 170 years ago, somebody took a string of pearls and threw them out across the landscape. And they’re still there.” 

For now, the area remains relatively undiscovered by outsiders, which may be a good thing for the small group of citizens, like Collins, who consider this place their spiritual home.

“There’s a quote I read once by Sherwood Anderson, the poet,” he said, gazing out at a 180-degree view of the refuge. “He could remember old men in his hometown speaking feelingly about evenings spent on the big, open prairie. He said, ‘It had taken the shrillness out of them. And they had learned the trick of quiet.’”

“That’s Hackmatack,” Collins said. “A place to go where you can re-learn the trick of quiet.”

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