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Hackmatack refuge protects habitat, wildlife in McHenry County

Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge protects varied landscape providing habitan array wildlife. Nippersink Creek flows through portions refuge. Image: Courtesy Openlands

Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge protects a varied landscape providing habitat to an array of wildlife. Nippersink Creek flows through portions of the refuge. Image: Courtesy of Openlands

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Updated: September 21, 2012 6:10AM

The Ice Age that carved out the Great Lakes also created miles of rolling hills, rushing creeks and prairie grasses about an hour’s drive from Chicago, in northern McHenry County and southern Wisconsin.

This pristine 11,200 acres — home to endangered migratory birds and rare oak burr savannas — recently received federal authorization as a National Wildlife Refuge Area, the 557th in the United States and the closest one to Chicago. The entire U.S. refuge system, which includes approximately 95 million acres, are lands that protect wild plant and animal life.

“[The Midwest] doesn’t have mountains and it doesn’t have geysers and it doesn’t have giant redwoods,” said Ed Collins, McHenry County Conservation District’s natural resource manager and part of the core group that sought the wildlife designation. “It’s a very, very slow magic and it sometimes takes a lifetime to appreciate it. But some of the rarest living things on the planet, they live in Northeastern Illinois and Southeastern Wisconsin.”

Among these rare beauties is a tiny remaining sliver of Illinois’ natural prairie, and the Blanding’s turtles and bobolinks that live within it. Now called the Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, it is named after the tamarack tree found in the area.

“For me, it’s been an opportunity over my lifetime to work with these communities and realize they have national significance,” said Collins, who grew up in Humboldt Park and became hooked on the outdoors during boyhood summers canoeing down the Fox River. “They have a national significance and the national wildlife refuge is a designation that means something outside of the region.”

Conservationists said they hope the national designation will also draw more city and suburban dwellers looking for an escape into the greater natural world.

“Open spaces provide the green infrastructure of the greater metropolitan area,” said Jerry Adelmann, president and CEO of the nonprofit Openlands, one of the groups advocating for the refuge designation. “Not everyone has a second home, and not everyone can take a vacation to the national parks, so this is a resource close to where people live that offers tremendous hiking, biking, fishing and canoeing. Connections to nature — those are values that are extremely important.”

Those working in Hackmatack hope to link a number of existing biking and hiking trails and establish a train connection straight into the protected area, another way to help city folks access the great outdoors.

“It’s maybe not the Rockies, but this is the Midwest, and it’s got great scenic qualities,” Adelmann said. “It has extraordinary natural diversity — these savannahs and prairies and forest and marshes and bogs.”

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