Hackmatack! A Dream Come True…


“Nothing happens unless first a dream.”

                                        -Carl Sandburg

About eight years ago, Friends of Hackmatack adopted this quote as the motto for our effort to bring a new national wildlife refuge to the Illinois-Wisconsin border. I can honestly say that it felt like a long shot when we started. But today, I’m telling all my conservation friends to dream big— you never know what you’ll be able to achieve!

On August 15, Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, joined by Senator Dick Durbin and surrounded by Hackmatack supporters, announced he has authorized the establishment of Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Wisconsin and northeastern Illinois.

Senator Dick Durbin and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar share stories with Hackmatack visionary Ed Collins. photo: Cindy Skrukrud

Soils suitable for restoration are all that remain of the tall grass prairie which once graced over 22 million acres of the Prairie State. This habitat along with remnant oak savannas are among the most endangered ecosystems on the planet. The opportunity to preserve and restore these rare landscapes forms the basis for the new refuge, along with conservation and restoration of wetland habitat. Habitat for prairie, savanna and wetland-dependent birds will be enhanced, benefiting species of concern including Henslow’s sparrow, short-eared owl, upland sandpiper, dickcissel, red-headed woodpecker, least bittern, pied-billed grebe and the Whooping crane. The pristine Nippersink Creek weaves its way back and forth across the stateline and serves as the corridor connecting the four core areas of the planned refuge.

map courtesy of USFWS

Hackmatack will be the very first refuge for the Chicago and Milwaukee metropolitan areas, joining the Service’s new set of urban refuges. Having a National Wildlife Refuge so close to the 11 million people who live in the Chicago-Milwaukee Metro area heightened support for the refuge.

“Having a refuge so close to Chicago is a boon for our effort to get urban kids out to enjoy and learn about nature,” said Donna Hriljac, volunteer leader with the Sierra Club’s Inner City Outings program.

Hriljac worked with the Friends of Hackmatack to sponsor activities in the Hackmatack area for teens from Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood in September 2011.  The teens canoed on Geneva Lake, collected aquatic insects and mussels from Nippersink Creek and cut invasive buckthorn at their camp site at Big Foot Beach State Park. At the end of their trip, they wrote letters to the Fish & Wildlife Service in support of the refuge:

“Making this area a refuge to me is very important because there isn’t another refuge around my house or in the whole Chicago area.”

“It is only through learning about something do people come to care about it and the preservation of it. There is no need or desire to conserve and preserve plant and wildlife if one does not have experience and knowledge of it.”

“I am glad this place may become a refuge for my children and their children to see for life.”

A number of those teens, students at Pritzker College Prep, will be back this coming September for another weekend of activities. They are just some of the many new conservation friends I’ve made as the ranks of Hackmatack supporters grew.

Sierra Club, Openlands and The Trust for Public Land stepped up when Friends of Hackmatack asked for help to accomplish our lofty goal. Governor Quinn and Senator Durbin, with other leaders from both Illinois and Wisconsin, were instrumental in getting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to launch a study of the proposed refuge in 2010. State Senator Pam Althoff and State Representative Jack Franks were successful in garnering unanimous support of the refuge by the Illinois legislature. Over 2500 citizens weighed in in support of the refuge in response to a Sierra Club alert–we had to apologize for crashing the USFWS’s server!

Hackmatack became a reality because so many ordinary people, elected leaders, and conservation organizations embraced the idea that the glacial landscape of northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin deserved the national recognition which refuge status would bring to our area.

“The Hackmatack Refuge is a testament to the power of ordinary citizens to protect the landscapes they love,” said Jack Darin, Illinois Chapter Director.

I couldn’t have said it better.

USFWS Hackmatack NWR webpage

Friends of Hackmatack webpage