After the Black Hawk War, in the early 1830s when white settlers pushed into the Fox River Valley, they encountered a rolling landscape carved by a glacier. The area was rich with a variety of plant and animal life. For new towns that sprung up along the river in Kane and McHenry counties, that natural setting eventually became a source of tourism for Chicagoans weary of the city. Resorts were built along the river in northern Illinois and north into Wisconsin.
Fast forward 180 years. The Fox Valley remains a place of beauty. But because of the development of the automobile, it doesn't enjoy the same getaway allure with city folk anymore, with the exception of those who enjoy water sports and cycling.
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That may change soon.
The federal government recently authorized the establishment of the Hackmatack Wildlife Refuge on land in northern McHenry County and into southern Wisconsin.
"Hackmatack" is a Native American word for the tamarack tree found in local wetlands.
As the region has developed, the tall grass prairies and oak savannas -- and the animal life they support -- that once were so plentiful are on the wane. The idea behind Hackmatack is to restore such habitats on 11,200 acres to provide a haven for wildlife (and to create recreational opportunities at the same time.)
This will not be a massive land grab. And it won't happen overnight.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has no funding for it yet. And when it does, officials plan to buy conservation easements only through voluntary sales. Outright land donations, of course, are welcome.
There are a number of reasons why this is significant for our part of the state.
First, the closest national wildlife refuges are three hours away: Chautauqua is south of Peoria and Leopold is in Portage, Wis.
Second, it furthers the course of action already in full swing farther south in Kane County, where publicly funded open space initiatives have multiplied the acreage protected from development.
Preserving open space provides an ecosystem for the coyotes and foxes and deer that people on the fringes of suburbia are often troubled to find in their backyards.
This refuge is expected to support 109 species of animals and 47 species of plants. It's in the path of a migrating flock of whooping cranes, which is being re-established.
There are many other benefits to humans, too.
It will help improve the quality of water in wells and aquifers.
And it will provide a source of education for our kids and a constant reminder of what this land looked, felt and smelled like before we dropped in.
What a great backyard for the suburbs to enjoy.