A Visit to Hackmatack

For well over a century, Chicago-area residents have been drawn to the wilderness as a refuge from stressful city life. Now, there’s a new destination for those who crave outdoor adventures: Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. Its 11,000 acres evoke a sense of beauty and grandeur.

Its 11,000 acres – encompassing wetlands, waterways, easements and nature preserves across two states – are just the beginning of a grand vision to restore a precious ecosystem. Photography by David C. Olson

For well over a century, Chicago-area residents have been drawn to the wilderness as a refuge from stressful city life.

And in the northern collar counties, many residents are familiar with conservation areas where they can walk, hike, bike, birdwatch and further enjoy nature, places like Glacial Park near Ringwood, North Branch Preserve near Richmond, Four Season Nature Preserve near Lake Geneva and Peterkin Pond in Walworth County.

Add to that list a new destination for those who crave outdoors adventures: Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, a growing bi-state, donut-shaped refuge area on the Illinois/Wisconsin border. It was officially established in 2012, but it wasn’t until 2018 that the refuge could officially open its first restored lands to the public.

Its first two tracts – 86 acres just north of Genoa City, Wis., dubbed the Turner Tract, and 27 acres between Hebron and Woodstock called the Perricone Tract – allow visitors to enjoy native species of plants and wildlife like oak savanna, prairie, wetlands, bald eagles, Blanding’s turtles and more.

The significance of this new conservation area is multi-faceted, says Steven Byers, chair of the Friends of Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, a nonprofit that supports the refuge in collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

“These places are important,” says Byers. “Plants provide oxygen. More fundamentally for the average person walking the trail is the sense of connection with the land, with nature and what that can bring, particularly during some of these troubling times.”

While it’s cited as a Chicago metro refuge, Hackmatack actually is located almost equal driving distance from Milwaukee, Madison, Rockford and Chicago. That means somewhere between 10 and 12 million people have easy access to this outdoor space.

Hackmatack’s establishment as America’s 561st national wildlife refuge – and the first in the Chicago area – was the culmination of an eight-year process started by dedicated citizens and volunteers. They envision an eventual 11,200-acre refuge that restores lands and connects habitats with the area’s rich network of natural preserves.

“We felt like maybe it was a pipe dream, but we kept working on it, and we discovered within the area there was a good understanding with the local population – including elected officials and other conservation groups and just regular people – that a national wildlife refuge was a good idea and open space was a good thing,” says Nancy Williamson, a former Illinois Department of Natural Resources regional watershed coordinator and member of the Friends of Hackmatack.


What is Hackmatack?

Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge is unique in many ways, beginning with its name. “Hackmatack” is the Algonquin term for the American Tamarack tree, which is often found in this area.

As for calling it a refuge, that can be a bit deceiving, says Todd Boonstra, who became refuge manager in late 2018.

“The name implies it’s a hands-off place,” he says. “Some national refuge places are, but not Hackmatack.”
In fact, Hackmatack is open to the public for what the USFWS considers the Big Six: hunting, fishing, wildlife observation, photography, environmental education and interpretation.

To the average person it may, in many ways, feel like a national park, but there are some differences, says Nancy Schietzelt, a member of the Environmental Defenders of McHenry County and Friends of Hackmatack.

“Most people would have an idea of what national parks or national recreation areas are,” says Schietzelt. “Those areas are managed in a way with people in mind and what people can do to come there and enjoy the area: fishing, biking, etc. National wildlife refuges are planned and organized for wildlife in mind. People can come and enjoy the plants and wildlife that live there, but you won’t find playgrounds. They’re not managed for human recreation.”

Most federal wildlife refuges established in the 1930s came from the top, down. The federal government identified the area as important and established the refuge, says Boonstra. But Hackmatack was a grassroots effort, born from the ground up.

Nearly a decade ago, a small group of dedicated conservationists like Byers and Williamson felt a refuge made sense for the area. It was consistent with wildlife action plans and fit green infrastructure planning. And, the area was home to many animals and plants the team felt needed to be protected.

Preparing a biological assessment – a scientific study documenting the types and numbers of plants and animals in the region and how they could be affected by a refuge – wound up being the easy part, Byers says. What took more effort was spending time with the community and local leaders to tell them about the refuge and what it could mean to the region.

“During the process of establishing the refuge, the USFWS had sponsored and held four public hearings – two in Illinois, two in Wisconsin – and over the course of those four public meetings, over 500 people came out to voice their support for the refuge,” Byers says.

On the day the refuge was officially established – Election Day, 2012 – then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Illinois Senator Dick Durbin were there to show their support.

“We had a big outpouring of support,” Byers says.

Today, it’s supported by a dozen conservation groups working in coalition to help grow the refuge. Land protection partners include groups like Openlands and Ducks Unlimited, which donated the Turner and Perricone tracts to the USFWS.

Once it is built out to its maximum acreage – a multi-generational process that will take years to complete, says Williamson – Hackmatack will have improved or restored 11,200 acres. However, the land parcels won’t form one solid mass of property, as is the case with the majority of national refuges.

The fully proposed refuge includes four core areas connected by corridors that create a doughnut shape through Walworth County and McHenry County. Some corridor sections encompass existing conservation lands – like Glacial Park, owned by the McHenry County Conservation District. These corridors will never be “officially” part of Hackmatack because they won’t be conveyed to the USFWS, but they make up the greater Hackmatack area, Byers says.

Other corridor sections will be made up of conservation easements, which are pieces of private property from which the USFWS has purchased conservation rights, says Boonstra. In this arrangement, property owners retain the land but sell select rights to their property – such as the ability to subdivide, farm or otherwise landscape – leaving the property’s native grasses, oak trees, wetlands and natural elements intact for future generations.

The importance of this corridor is monumental, says Byers.

“Grassland bird numbers in Illinois have declined by as much as 90 percent over the past century because of the conversion of prairie/grasslands to row crops and development,” says Byers, a former ecologist with the Illinois Nature Preserve Commission. ”The core areas are large enough to support ‘area-sensitive’ birds – birds that require grasslands of at least 80 to 100 acres in size – and the corridors allow species to move from one location to another, and by doing so, mitigate some of the challenges posed by climate change and fragmentation of our landscapes by farms and towns.”

Since the refuge was established in 2012, nearly 1,500 acres have been acquired by various Hackmatack land protection partners, Byers says. Some of that land – like the Turner and Perricone tracts – has been conveyed to the USFWS and become part of the refuge; some lands are being restored by individual partners and will be conveyed at a later date.

If you combine the roughly 10,000 acres already owned by the McHenry County Conservation District and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources with the 11,200 acres the Friends of Hackmatack and its land protection partners hope to purchase and donate to the USFWS, Hackmatack will be a sizeable refuge.

“In a perfect world, sometime in the future, there will be at least 22,000 acres of protected land within the footprint of the refuge,” Byers says.

Why is it Important?

While many people believe open spaces are beneficial for both nature and humans, for others, the question still remains: Why should I care about Hackmatack?

For one thing, the Chicago region is home to more threatened and endangered species than any other part of Illinois, says Schietzelt.

“I find that rather fascinating,” she adds. “Unless we provide space for these plants and animals to live, they will cease to be threatened and endangered, and will become extinct in Illinois.”

When the predecessors of the Friends of Hackmatack built an ecological assessment to show that a refuge was needed here, they documented the region’s plants and animals and found two federally listed endangered plant species: the prairie bush clover and eastern prairie fringed orchid, Byers says.

Further exploration revealed the area contained 109 species of concern in Illinois and Wisconsin, including the Blanding’s turtle, bobolink, red-headed woodpecker and Lake Sturgeon.

While the area’s natural diversity is important, it’s also essential for people to make a connection with the wilderness in their own backyards, says Schietzelt.

“If you don’t appreciate nature, how could you ever want to protect nature?” she says. “You can watch programs on national parks or locations in Africa and other places in the world that are just amazing and spectacularly beautiful, but there’s just a limit on what you can gain from watching TV. You need to get out there and walk through the waving prairie grasses, enjoy the beautiful flowers, and stand under the majestic oaks that are 200 and 300 years old.”

Having a large refuge in your own backyard can help many people make that connection, she says.

Of course, there’s also the possibility of an economic benefit to seeing Hackmatack grow, especially as it encourages foot traffic through the surrounding communities.

“It’s going to be a boon for this area through ecotourism dollars that people will spend visiting the sites,” Schietzelt says.

Experiencing Hackmatack
Part of the purpose of the Friends of Hackmatack is to connect people to the refuge lands that the group is so driven to protect.

With the help of the 12 organizations who have committed to growing the refuge, plus other local conservation groups, the Friends of Hackmatack works tirelessly to promote conservation at community events and also host educational programs to enrich residents and encourage them to enjoy and protect the nature around them.

Events include Monarch Mania, a family event hosted in the summer with the Monarch Coalition (a group of more than 20 organizations). Years past have seen more than 600 people visit to learn more about monarch butterflies and other pollinators, rain gardens, the refuge and more.

Byers is hopeful Friends of Hackmatack will still hold its Big Sit event this October, when volunteers sit in the park and search for as many bird species as they can find.

The group also hosts Friends Gatherings, when members tour refuge sites to see how restoration efforts are coming along.

Still, the best way to experience Hackmatack is to see it up close and personal.

“I recommend hiking the kames trail at Glacial Park,” Byers says, “to experience the beauty and sense of grandeur the refuge will become.”

How to Explore Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge

Aside from the many public conservation areas within the Hackmatack corridor, two new tracts of land are open to the public.

1. Turner Tract (donated to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by Ducks Unlimited)
Near Genoa City, in Walworth County, Wis.

This 86-acre tract is a half- mile north of Genoa City, west of County Highway H. Visitors are advised to park in the parking lot located on County Highway H.

2. Perricone Tract (donated to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by Openlands)
Between Hebron and Woodstock, in McHenry County, Ill.

This 27-acre tract lies just west of the intersection of Illinois Route 47 and Thayer Road. Visitors are advised to park on the side of a driveway cut west of Nippersink Creek.

Visitors are asked to keep the following guidelines in mind when visiting any Hackmatack-area conservation site:

Heed the regulations on signage posted at each site. Some sites allow hunting, while others do not. Some sites request visitors to stay on trails; others allow visitors to roam freely. Regulations also can be found at fws.gov.
No collection of natural materials is allowed, including mushrooms, animal sheds, etc.
Camping is not allowed.
Fires are not allowed.
Trash pickup is not available at sites. Whatever you bring in must come out.

Learn more and donate at hackmatacknwr.org.