The proposed Hackamatack refuge area is an important habitat for the endangered whooping crane. (Photo by NaturesFan1226/Flickr)

Hackmatack. The word doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue…but that’s hopefully about to change for Chicagolanders, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently reviewing the possibility of creating the Hackamatack National Wildlife Refuge along the Illinois/Wisconsin border. Named for the Algonquin word for the tamarack tree, an uncommon deciduous conifer that’s native to the area, Hackmatack would be the closest wildlife refuge to the city.

Yes, Chicago has plenty of lovely outdoor space alright, but we have very little access to any of the state’s federally protected lands. While Illinois currently has seven wildlife refuges, all are at least 140 miles away from Chicago. With Hackmatack’s proposed area centering around McHenry County in Illinois, and Walworth and Kenosha counties in Wisconsin, the heart of the refuge would be more like 60 miles from the city.

What does that mean for us, other than a closer spot to hit the trails? The FWS environmental assessment examines the possibility of setting aside 10,000 to 30,000 acres of wetland basins, historic prairie, and forest habitats—meaning a whole lot of space to check out the diverse scenery of a healthy Illinois ecosystem.

If established, the refuge will incorporate some beautiful terrain, dotted with streams, marshes, and moraines—and preserve them for future generations. Why is that mixed terrain such a big deal? For one thing, 90 percent of Illinois wetlands have been lost in the last 200 years, according to the Wetlands Initiative, so protecting areas like this are more important than ever.

But it’s not just the landscape and proximity that makes the proposed refuge area special. It already serves as important habitat for more than 100 species of concern, including threatened and endangered species like the whooping crane, bobolink, red-headed woodpecker, Blanding’s turtle, and short-eared owl.

So, if there’s already all that flora and fauna there, with several existing conservation groups currently overseeing them, then why would making it a national wildlife refuge matter? Basically because thousands of areas of prairie, wetland, and forest in the gaps between existing preserves would be conserved and restored. Setting aside a large section of federally protected land would be a meaningful opportunity to link together those existing conservation areas, providing maximum protection from future development, and giving the region one great new shot at protecting our local ecosystems for generations to come.

The possibility is real. And the good news is, you can help make it a reality. After two years of study, the USFWS is now seeking public input on the proposed plan [PDF] and will accept public comments through April 27. Make your voice heard today!

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