Hackmatack aims to protect prairies, rare oak savannas

RINGWOOD – To those who campaigned to save it, this is a place of understated beauty, sculpted by glaciers and fire and time.

Traffic jams, subdivisions and shopping malls give way to open lands with remnants of tallgrass prairies and oak savannas. Wetlands, grasslands and the remarkably clean Nippersink Creek provide a home to threatened animals, plants and aquatic life, and a respite for migrating waterfowl and songbirds.

Now this open and gently rolling land is home to the new Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, 11,200 acres straddling McHenry County and Walworth County, Wis., that offers a chance to preserve and restore an ecosystem that is more endangered than rain forests – yet somehow still exists so close to major cities.

The U.S. Department of Interior announced in August that it had approved the Hackmatack – the Algonquin word for the tamarack tree – eight years after local residents, conservationists and environmental groups began a campaign to preserve it from encroaching development. The refuge became official in November, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acquired its first easement.

The Hackmatack fits an Interior Department and FWS initiative to bring city and suburban dwellers closer to nature; there are more than 10 million people within about an hour’s drive. Previously, the closest national refuge to Chicago was 150 miles away.

Ed Collins, resource manager for the McHenry County Conservation District, knows it’s different from most refuges. There are no mountains, roaring waterfalls or towering forests.

“But there’s a really slow and quiet beauty to this place, and I think sometimes it takes a lifetime to really come to understand that,” he said. “Once you do ... it’s just as dramatic as other places. That’s why they call it the heartland.”

He’s eager to share it with others.

“People are aware of the destruction of tropical rainforests and how serious that is, but when you look at the original prairie [in Illinois and Wisconsin], less than one one-hundredth of 1 percent remains,” Collins said.

When the first white settlers arrived, savannas – grassy hilltops dotted with massive oak trees – and flat, open wetlands and grassland prairies dominated the landscape. Wildfires regularly cleared the land, creating rich soil that drew farmers and cattlemen.

Since then, most wetlands have been drained or filled, oaks cut down, prairies converted to corn and soybeans and pastures. Developers have bulldozed and paved the land for subdivisions, businesses and roadways.

But pockets of the original ecosystem remain – like pearls scattered across the landscape, Collins says – and there still are large tracts of undeveloped farmland and pastureland that could be restored to their original state.

The Hackmatack includes thousands of acres within the McHenry County Conservation District and parcels that have been conserved by others. But much of the refuge’s land is owned by private citizens.

The Fish and Wildlife Service will buy some of that over time, but nobody will be forced to sell and local zoning laws are still in effect, officials said. Private owners also may grant conservation easements or enter management agreements.

Conservation group Openlands acquired the first parcel, 72 acres of farmland and wetlands, which was sold to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. The FWS accepted a 12-acre easement to make the refuge official, said Lenore Beyer-Clow, policy director at Openlands.

“It’s a significant accomplishment that took a lot of dedication from a lot of people,” she said.

The level of public support was a big factor in the Hackmatack’s designation, said Tom Larson, head of conservation planning for the FWS Midwest Region.

“I was impressed at all the public meetings; probably 90 percent or more of the people were urging us to move ahead,” he said. “That is not always the case.”

Some people initially worried the county would give up public land or private owners would be forced to sell. Snowmobile clubs were concerned that existing trails would be closed, but Collins said the county would try to obtain easements to keep them open.

Robert May, a real estate broker, knows of nobody who opposes the refuge.

“For those of us who live out here, the concept of having additional wildlife area for recreation and hunting is pretty wonderful,” May said. “And it’s wonderful to have this close to Chicago.”

Proponents talk about endangered or threatened species that live in or visit the refuge: the upland sandpiper, Henslow sparrow, short-eared owl, sandhill and whooping cranes and eastern prairie white-fringed orchid.

The goal is to connect enough and restore enough parcels to create environments and pathways for such plants and animals to move and thrive. But the refuge is also meant as a place where people can get away; to hike, hunt, ski and canoe; to see something special.

Glacial Park, a 3,400-acre parcel in McHenry County, is a snapshot of what the larger refuge could become. Pastures have been converted to prairies with native grasses and flowers. Savannas have been replanted with oaks.

Crews restored a meandering 3-mile stream buried by past landowners and removed agricultural tiles that drained the land. Today, there are 1,500 acres of wetlands in the park; 27 years ago, only 100 acres remained.

Similar restoration is possible elsewhere, Collins said, because the earth “has memory.”

“It knows what is supposed to be here,” he said. “The plants and the animals that have been part of this ecosystem since the glaciers melted are still here. They’re hidden away in fence rows and back pastures, along railroad tracks and cemeteries.

“But if you give the ground half a chance, it remembers.”

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