Hackmatack Wildlife Refuge becomes reality

RINGWOOD – After eight years of advocacy and planning, the Friends of Hackmatack gathered Wednesday afternoon at Glacial Park for a milestone: the designation of a national wildlife refuge in northeastern McHenry County and southeastern Wisconsin.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced federal designation of Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, the first and only refuge in northern Illinois. The 11,000-acre refuge straddles McHenry County and Walworth County, Wis.

The final document to establish Hackmatack as the U.S.’s 557th national refuge has been “signed off,” Salazar said, prompting applause at the Lost Valley Visitor Center at Route 31 and Harts Road.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and representatives of federal and local agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the McHenry County Conservation District, attended the announcement.

Fish and Wildlife Service biologists developed a proposal to establish the Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge in January 2010, and that fall sought feedback in public hearings.

Salazar said creating the refuge was “really a local, ground-up conservation initiative that we’re so proud to be a part of.”

For two years Fish and Wildlife service, spurred by Friends of Hackmatack, studied the feasibility of tying together at least 11,000 acres in Illinois and Wisconsin to create a national wildlife refuge.

Friends of Hackmatack comprises about 70 public and nonprofit groups. The quest for a refuge sprouted in 2004 from “humble beginnings,” around a “kitchen table,” said Lenore Beyer-Clow, policy director at Openlands. Local conservation activists shared the vision, she said.

“If you really think about it, the Hackmatack Wildlife Refuge is really about people. A place for people to connect with nature,” Beyer-Clow said.

Hackmatack – named for a Native American term for the tamarack tree – sets aside public lands for wildlife protection.

“It adds value to existing conservation lands and makes new lands more secure by tying it to a larger system,” said Thomas Larsen, division of conservation planning chief for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Ken Koehler, McHenry County Board chairman, touted the economic benefits of the refuge, from increased tourism to greater access to federal funds for infrastructure improvements. “This is huge,” he said. “People who are [into outdoor recreation] add a lot to the local economy.”

Echoing Salazar, Durbin said it’s always in the nation’s best interest to preserve and protect for future generations the “beautiful panorama that God has left for us.”

Durbin also thanked U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, his GOP colleague, for support leading to Wednesday’s designation.

“When it comes to Hackmatack, it’s bipartisan,” Durbin, a Democrat, said.

State Sen. Pam Althoff, R-McHenry, and state Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, were among dignitaries in a crowd of about 100 at the announcement.

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