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September 25, 2012

Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge Becomes a Reality

Photo by Dan Deters

Illinois and Wisconsin Sierra Club activists celebrated last month when Interior Secretary Ken Salazar visited Illinois to announce the establishment of the new 11,200-acre Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. Straddling the Illinois-Wisconsin border, Hackmatack is roughly equidistant from Chicago, Milwaukee, and Madison, Wisconsin.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Salazar, pictured above with Illinois Sierra Club activist Cindy Skrukrud, was joined at the August 15 announcement in the new refuge by Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, who was instrumental in getting Hackmatack established.

Durbin, a Democrat, thanked fellow Illinois Senator Mark Kirk, a Republican, for his support leading to the designation of the refuge. "When it comes to Hackmatack, it's bipartisan," Durbin said.

That's Durbin, below at left, with Salazar and Ed Collins, natural resource manager for the McHenry County, Illinois, Conservation District. Collins was part of the core group that sought national wildlife refuge designation for Hackmatack.


"The Midwest doesn't have mountains and it doesn't have geysers and it doesn't have giant redwoods," Collins told the Elgin Courier-News. "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."

Photo by Ray Mathis

Collins, who grew up in Chicago, got hooked on the outdoors during boyhood summers canoeing on the Fox River, which rises just west of Milwaukee and flows south into Illinois, where it empties into the Illinois River about 75 miles southwest of Chicago.

"The native communities [in Hackmatack] have a national significance," he said, "and the national wildlife refuge is a designation that means something outside of the region."

Photo courtesy of Ray Mathis

The Sierra Club was a key player in the Friends of Hackmatack partnership, which has been working since 2004 to make the new wildlife refuge a reality. "The Hackmatack Refuge is a testament to the power of ordinary citizens to protect the landscapes they love," said Jack Darin, Illinois Chapter Director.

Skrukrud, a staffer for the Sierra Club Water Sentinels, was among the activists spearheading the grassroots effort to establish the refuge. "My husband Tom von Geldern and I are members of the Friends of Hackmatack steering committee, which hatched this idea about eight years ago," she said.

"The Club's Illinois and Wisconsin chapters, Openlands, and the Trust for Public Land really stepped up when we asked for help. More than 2,500 citizens weighed in supporting the refuge in response to a Sierra Club alert. We had to apologize for crashing the Fish & Wildlife Service's server!"

Photo by Ray Mathis

The new refuge will be made up of several contiguous parcels of land, roughly in the shape of a donut with a large pocket of farmland in the center (see map, below). The area is home to 109 species of concern, including 49 birds, five fish species, two reptiles, one amphibian, five mussels, and 47 types of plants. The refuge will be used for conservation, hunting, fishing, environmental education, and recreational activities.


"Friends of Hackmatack presented the case that the glacial landscape along the Illinois-Wisconsin border is a very special place," Skrukrud said. "Now the scenic beauty and wildlife habitat of our oak savannas, rare tallgrass prairie, and the pristine, high-quality Nippersink Creek have been recognized on the countrywide stage."

Photo by Ray Mathis

Nippersink Creek, above, which weaves back and forth across the Illinois-Wisconsin border, will serve as the corridor connecting the four core areas of the new refuge. Hackmatack becomes the first refuge for the Chicago and Milwaukee metropolitan areas, home to nearly 11 million people, and is expected to attract more than 200,000 visitors per year. The next-closest refuge to Chicago is 150 miles away.


"Having a refuge so close to Chicago is a boon to our efforts to get urban kids out to enjoy and learn about nature," said Donna Hriljac, a volunteer leader with the Sierra Club's Inner City Outings program in Chicago. That's Hriljac below with Skrukrud, holding up a poster announcing an ICO trip to Hackmatack the day of Secretary Salazar's visit. The two are also pictured in the photo atop this post, flanking the trip participants.


Hriljac worked with the Friends of Hackmatack to sponsor activities in the Hackmatack area for teens from Chicago, who canoed on Wisconsin's Geneva Lake, collected aquatic insects and mussels from Nippersink Creek, and cut invasive buckthorn at their campsite at Big Foot Beach State Park near Lake Geneva.

At the end of their trip, all the participants wrote letters to the Fish & Wildlife Service in support of the refuge. One of them wrote:

"Making this area a refuge is very important to me because there isn't another refuge around my house or in the whole Chicago area. I am glad this place may become a refuge for my children and their children to see for life."

Photo by Ray Mathis

In addition to Hriljac, Skrukrud gives special kudos to Illinois Chapter volunteer Evan Craig, chair of the Woods & Wetlands Group, and John Muir (Wisconsin) Chapter volunteers L.D. Rockwell and Southeast Gateway Group Chair Melissa Warner.

To see a gallery of photos of the Hackmatack area by Illinois photographer Ray Mathis, click on any of the images in this post attributed to him.


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