Wildlife refuge gets additional 985 acres, touted as largest open land acquisition in Chicago area in decades

Just shy of 1,000 acres adjacent to Richmond are set to become part of the Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, according to the nonprofit agencies that negotiated its purchase and eventual transfer to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Tamarack Farms, a 985-acre property west of Route 12 and south of Route 173, will link the McHenry County Conservation District’s Glacial Park and North Branch Conservation Area, creating 5,600 acres of open land.

The Conservation Fund, Illinois Audubon Society and Openlands partnered to acquire the land from Peter Bell.

“We are working with willing landowners who want to sell,” said Emily Reusswig, vice president of conservation and policy at Openlands. “This is not the federal government coming in to take land away.”

The former Christmas tree farm is now part of the “largest conservation acquisition in the Chicago region” in 30 years, according to a news release from the three organizations.

Tamarack Farms abuts the village’s borders, Richmond Village President Toni Wardanian said.

“It prevents us from ever developing that – not that there were any plans for that – but I am not sad,” Wardanian said. “This would be the only federal park around these parts. For that kind of tourism, that is not a horrible thing.”

Reusswig echoed that sentiment, noting that McHenry County has seen a rise in eco-tourism in recent years, even rebranding the Convention and Visitors Bureau as

“McHenry County has ... one of the most beautiful landscapes in the region. Michigan has made an economy out of nature. Why can’t McHenry County have that?” Reusswig said.

Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge was established in 2012 and protects wildlife habitat in the Nippersink Creek watershed.

Straddling the Illinois and Wisconsin state lines, it aims to “create an 11,200-acre natural landscape” by connecting conservation areas and wildlife migration corridors, officials said.

Reusswig said Hackmatack currently is a patchwork of preserved land, with about 400 acres open to the public. Which areas have recreation opportunities can be found on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website at

The land was sold, a site at a time, by owners interested in preserving the property’s nature, Reusswig said.

The Tamarack site features 75 acres of wetland and extensive oak woodlands and oak savanna. Once the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service owns the property, the agency “is pretty quick to make it available to the public,” Reusswig said.

Recreational opportunities are expected to include hiking and walking, canoeing and kayaking, bird and wildlife watching, biking and wintertime recreation.

Reusswig described Hackmatack as an “urban refuge” designed to get those in the greater region outside for a weekend or a week to “visit natural areas in McHenry County.”

“[You can] go to the glass studio in Richmond and have a drink and make something new, or rent a kayak and get on Nippersink Creek,” she said.

Tamarack farm also wraps around Richmond-Burton High School on four sides. Reusswig said students at the District 157 school already have been involved in restoration activities and workdays on the land.

“The high school will have a national refuge outside its doors,” she said.

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