Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge Review – Not Just for the Birds

Sunrise in Hackmatack - Photo by Ray Mathis
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Engaged in the business and busyness of daily life, we can often forget we do not exist alone on Earth. We push out of our minds, for surely we haven’t truly forgotten, that we share the planet with animals and plants who themselves are busy surviving and propagating, whether it be oak trees or milkweed plants, monarch butterflies or egrets, Blanding’s turtles or walleyes. What can we do to remind ourselves we are not alone on life’s journey through space and time? Visit a National Wildlife Refuge!


My husband and I drive north from Evanston IL to Ringwood IL and the Lost Valley Visitor’s Center in Glacial Park. Though Glacial Park is a conservation area of the McHenry Conservation District and not a parcel of Hackmatack per se, it does abut one of the refuge’s proposed core areas to the north and a conservation corridor to the south. With its parking accessibility, Glacial Park offers a good example of what to expect from our nation’s 561st National Wildlife Refuge established in November 2012 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Previously, Friends of Hackmatack worked for nineteen years to build a biological case for the refuge and elicit public support.


Hackmatack will be the only national refuge serving the metropolitan sprawl from Milwaukee south to Chicago and Rockford east to Lake Michigan. It will provide environmental education, conservation, wildlife observation, and other wildlife-dependent opportunities to millions of people, a chance to reconnect with who we are in relation to the natural world.

At Glacial Park we are surprised by stunning long views and tranquility. The slow-current Nippersink Creek meanders throughout the park on its way to the Fox River. And the park is not all flat oak savanna, prairie and marshland. Ten thousand years ago glaciers deposited large hills of gravel and drift as the ice receded north. Now covered with rich vegetation, the hills are known as kames and offer landscape variety for hikers young and old. In addition to hiking and wildlife observation, Glacial Park offers biking, canoeing, horseback riding, picnicking, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling during the hours from sunrise to sunset daily.


Once inside the LEED green building that is the Lost Valley Visitor Center, we meet with Hackmatack’s personable refuge manager, Todd Boonstra. He explains that Hackmatack’s land protection partners include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Openlands, Ducks Unlimited, McHenry County Conservation District, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Geneva Lake Conservancy, Kettle Moraine Land Trust, other non-profits, as well as farmers and landowners.

This past May the Illinois Audubon Society formally initiated the process of joining the partnership. The Spring 2019 issue of Illinois Audubon features an article written by Steven Byers, currently the Chair of Friends of Hackmatack. ‘Since the Refuge was established in 2012,’ Byers writes, ‘more than 1,400 acres of land have been protected by those Land Protection Partner organizations, all acquired from willing sellers.’

Todd details the six recreational priorities of the National Wildlife Refuge System: wildlife observation and photography, hunting and fishing as means of wildlife management, and environmental education and interpretation. He recently drafted a Compatibility Determination document to propose the construction of blinds, observation decks and parking lots for wildlife observation and photography in Hackmatack, as well as the anticipated environmental impacts of their use. This draft was available June 24th to July 9th for public review and comment. Concerns raised and agency responses will be included in the final version.


The Friends have a yearly schedule of events that include World Migratory Bird Days, Bird Walks, Monarch Mania, gatherings, annual meetings, and stewardship days. A few days ago, volunteers planted 861 of more than one thousand milkweed plants donated by Monarch Watch on Hackmatack prairie along Route 47 between Hebron and Woodstock. The remainder will be planted this Thursday. There are many ways Friends can take an active part in the refuge.

When I ask Todd how one can support Hackmatack, he says, ‘If you like what you see, buy a Duck Stamp!’

Ninety-eight percent of the cost of the Federal Duck Stamp goes directly to help ‘acquire and protect wetland habitat and purchase conservation easements for the National Wildlife Refuge System,’ according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Check with your local U.S. Post Office, wildlife refuge or sporting goods store for the $25 stamp. 


It’s a hot summer afternoon. After thanking Todd for his time and, in lieu of hiking any of the many trail loops this visit, my husband and I investigate the classrooms, library resources, and an exhibit area found within the Visitor Center. A most helpful volunteer answers our questions and offers advice on where to lunch in Richmond just north on Route 31.  

Along the road into the park is a turtle-crossing sign. It’s only now, when it’s too late, that I wish we had stopped to take a photo. Turtles and their habitats have been important to me since I first read Minn of the Mississippi by Holling Clancy Holling.

We will plan a visit while endangered Blanding’s turtle hatchlings are being protected from extreme predation before they are released into the park wilderness. The semi-aquatic turtles can live eighty years in the wild. Considered an umbrella species, saving their habitats means saving many other species as well.

Knowing that time spent in nature is good for our own health, we will buy a Duck Stamp, join the Friends, and return to Glacial Park when autumn offers cooler temperatures. I encourage anyone interested in a respite from city and suburban life to visit the park as well. Ask lots of questions inside, then hike outside along the trails and listen to what the natural habitats and their inhabitants have to say. You might find yourself protecting turtles and planting milkweed plants. Don’t forget to bring along your family and friends!

LEAVING GLACIAL PARK – Photo by Stephanie Colburn

Hackmatack’s name comes from a Native American word for the tamarack tree which was abundant during glacial times.

For further information: www.gov/refuge/hackmatack or call 815-273-2732.

The Lost Valley Visitor Center is located at Route 31 and Harts Road in Ringwood, 815-678-4532.


1 Comment

  1. Our family lives nearby and we are so appreciative of Friends of Hackmatack and the FWS. Thanks for a great article!

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