Refuge for the City

A century ago, when the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service was founded, the organization set a goal to put a national wildlife refuge within 100 miles of every major metropolitan area in the country. Today, that vision is nearly complete, save for a major gap in the Midwest around the cities of Chicago and Milwaukee.

But that’s about to change. After years of hard work on the part of The Trust for Public Land and partners, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service recently granted authority to create the Hackmatack Wildlife Refuge which lies within an hour’s drive of both cities.

Named for an Algonquin word for the tamarack tree, the Hackmatack is comprised of more than 60 public and private parks, preserves, and natural areas totaling 23,000 acres. In addition to hosting its namesake tree, the landscape is lined with oak and hickory groves and meandering streams that feed the surrounding wetlands. More than a hundred species of birds and animals call this region home—including threatened and endangered species such as the Blanding's turtle and sandhill crane.

During the rapid population growth of the 20th century, many of the wetlands within the Hackmatack ecosystem were altered for residential development, while others were conserved. The refuge designation would link these areas of conservation together like the pieces of a puzzle.

So, what does that mean? Well, for starters, linking these properties will enhance protection for 109 wildlife and plant species of concern. The refuge will also be an economic boon for surrounding communities and bring increased opportunities for outdoor recreation such as hiking, biking, horseback riding, canoeing, bird watching and more to residents of the Chicago metro area.

This is one of the most important conservation projects in Illinois,” says Beth White of The Trust for Public Land. “It’s incredibly important recognition for the natural areas of this part of the country that often go underappreciated.”

White continues, “It’s unique because it’s an urban refuge, within visiting distance of 9 million people. That’s huge.”