The giddy celebration for local folks came earlier this month on a warm, sun-kissed day at the nation's first wildlife refuge on Florida's Pelican Island. Adding a plank reading "Hackmatack" to the boardwalk, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar officially commemorated our nation's newest and 561st wildlife refuge, which spans parts of McHenry County and southern Wisconsin.
But the hard work behind Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge began more than eight years ago when a handful of passionate conservationists sat around a kitchen table in McHenry. Calling themselves Friends of Hackmatack, an American Indian word for the tamarack tree, they hatched an unlikely idea of rallying support from local communities, counties, states and federal politicians from opposing political parties to save and restore a Midwestern landscape that includes tallgrass prairies, migratory birds, oak savannas, otters, wetland grasses, myriad butterflies, the protected Blanding's turtle and the meandering Nippersink Creek.
"It's not the Tetons. It's not the Redwoods. It doesn't shout at you the first time you see it," explains Ed Collins, natural resource manager for the McHenry County Conservation District and a visionary who helped make the dream come true. Last summer, Collins manned a four-wheel vehicle and showed Salazar and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin why Hackmatack is worthy of federal protection.
"This is a wonderful place, a crown jewel for this part of Illinois and for Wisconsin," Salazar said in a speech that August day.
On a recent cold and windy January day, the 54-year-old Collins trudges through the muck, steps gingerly through thick brush, and ducks under tree branches alongside Lenore Beyer-Clow, the equally passionate policy director for Openlands, the Chicago-based nonprofit environmental group that played a key role in preserving Hackmatack.
"This land has never been plowed," Collins says as he kneels in a 12-acre sedge meadow to point out a clump of tussock sedge, carefully shows how the serrated blades earned prairie cordgrass the name "ripgut," and crushes dried flowers to release the aroma of mountain mint. "This meadow has been the same probably for the last 10,000 years."
Collins tells of bobcat and bald eagle sightings, habitats for bobolinks, savanna sparrows and sedge wrens, and layovers by migrating cranes. He pauses on a bridge to point out where otters play in the water of the Nippersink, which he calls "the silver thread that stitches it all together."
Formed by glacial ice and sculpted by water, wind and fire, Hackmatack is home to 109 "species of concern," including 49 birds, five types of fish, five mussels, 47 plants, two reptiles and one amphibian that are rare, threatened, endangered or otherwise deserving of protection.
"We literally live with some of the rarest things on the planet, outside our doorsteps," says Collins, who makes his home near Ringwood.
Hackmatack's birds, including migratory visitors such as the endangered whooping crane, helped rally support for the preserve, says Beyer-Clow, who lives in Woodstock. Another factor that helped win support is that Hackmatack is the only wildlife refuge within 100 miles of Chicago. Other refuges in Illinois are along the Mississippi River or downstate.
"We are close to where people are, so they can come out for a day," notes Beyer-Clow. Her Openlands group purchased land and then sold it to the government in a complicated process that involved cooperation from private agencies and many levels of government such as the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"It's how conservation gets done now," Collins says of the 21st-century cooperation.
"At a time when there is so little bipartisanship, when it comes to Hackmatack, it's bipartisan." Sen. Durbin, a Democrat, said while working on behalf on Hackmatack with U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, a Republican from Highland Park.
Hailing Hackmatack as "a way to connect urban and suburban residents with nature," the federal plan calls for the preserve to grow by more than 11,000 acres, of which almost 8,000 already are under the jurisdiction of state and local governments. The protected land is meant to be enjoyed by fishermen, hunters, canoeists, kayakers, bicyclists, picnickers and tourists, Beyer-Clow says.
In her presentations about Hackmatack, Beyer-Clow often uses a Carl Sandburg line: "Nothing happens, unless first a dream." Now that dream is a reality.
His boots covered with black, sticky muck, his cheeks flush from the cold wind, Collins says he appreciates the "subtle magic" of Hackmatack even on a cold winter afternoon. He describes each parcel of Hackmatack as a pearl from a necklace that broke and scattered its treasures across the landscape. Part of the appeal of Hackmatack is that its value isn't obvious in the way of a majestic mountain range or thundering waterfall. You have to learn how to appreciate the way the land and wildlife change with the seasons.
"You'll never be bored," promises a smiling Collins. "Now, admittedly, it is a slowly moving video. It takes a lifetime to know."