Acquisition of Tamarack Farms gives Hackmatack NWR a major add

Ed Collins pointed out kames (glacial mounds), kettles (glacial holes), headwater streams, a hemi-marsh and glacial erratic (glacial rocks). He explained why bur oaks were on the hillside and white oaks farther down.

“The beauty of this landscape is not like the Tetons, that screams at you; it is more subtle, but it is Midwestern, shaped by fire and ice,” said Collins, director of land preservation and natural resources of the McHenry County Conservation District.

We drove around Tamarack Farms and connected sites Wednesday.

Last week, The Conservation Fund, Illinois Audubon Society and Openlands announced the acquisition of the 985-acre Tamarack Farms in Richmond for Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. The approved boundaries for Hackmatack in McHenry County and Wisconsin’s Walworth County is a 11,200-acre natural landscape.

As Jo Fessett, executive director of IAS, put it, “We are able in one swoop to whack out 10 percent of the refuge.”

Tamarack Farms was named for its tamarack, a native deciduous conifer listed as threatened in Illinois. Hackmatack is the term for tamarack in Algonquin languages.

“Since the Tamarack Farms property was under threat of development, protecting it has been a top conservation priority for decades,” said Emy Brawley, Illinois state director for TCF, in the announcement. “Through patient negotiations over the course of years, this once-in-a-generation opportunity has been realized.”

Acquisition partners cited Prairie State Conservation Coalition’s status of the acquisition: “Tamarack Farms is the largest conservation acquisition in the Chicago region since the creation of Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in 1996.”

Tamarack Farms connects with existing sites–Glacial Park Conservation Area (3,439 acres), North Branch CA (521 acres) and three U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service parcels–creating a continuous 5,600-acre macrosite, third largest in the six-county Chicago area behind Midewin and the Forest Preserves of Cook County’s Palos Preserves.

“If you’re an animal or a plant, it is just one continuous place,” Collins said.

Habitat, habitat. During the presidency of Barack Obama, then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar established Hackmatack in 2012. When restored, it will be a mix of wetland basins, historic prairie and forest habitats.

Fessett’s list of endangered birds at Hackmatack includes upland sandpiper, black tern, loggerhead shrike, Wilson’s phalarope and Forster’s tern. Threatened bird species include black-billed cuckoo and least bittern.

“Sandhills are there,” Fessett said. “Whooping cranes have made appearances there, but they have not set up shop there. American bitterns are there.”

North Branch, where Collins and I had 20 wild turkeys, is noted for grassland birds: bobolinks, grasshopper sparrows, Henslow’s sparrows, western meadowlarks, dickcissels, marsh hawks and short-eared owls.

Thinking of adding grasslands on Tamarack Farms to 300 acres of grasslands at North Branch had Collins salivating, “Then you might get upland plovers (sandpipers).”

Though a bird person, Fessett said threatened mammals include northern long-eared bat and Franklin’s squirrel.

“It is really cool because it is an urban wildlife refuge,” Fessett said.

That designation by FWS aims to increase public access to green space and recreation.

Hackmatack borders a grade school and Richmond-Burton Community High School, which had Collins dreaming of students being inspired.

At a field in a low area, Collins said that it was Houghton muck, a highly organic soil that drains poorly. He guessed FWS would turn it into a shallow marsh and likely restore tamaracks.

Hackmatack grows toward a recreation mecca. In North Branch, Collins explained that through the Prairie Trail North and Hebron Trail, “You could get on in Chicago and hike to Hebron for ice cream.”

Nippersink Creek runs through Hackmatack. On weekends, Collins said the canoeists make it “kind of look like the Dan Ryan.”

According to acquisition partners, “Tamarack Farms remains under an active farm lease and public access will be limited until the property is opened for recreation by USFWS. . . . The Conservation Fund and Openlands will hold the property in trust until it can be conveyed to the USFWS as funding from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund becomes available.”

Other support came from the Bobolink Foundation, James and Elizabeth Bramsen, Mr. and Mrs. Jonathan Hamill, Nancy Hamill Winter, the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation and the McHenry County Conservation Foundation.

“Scale is what we saw today,” Collins said. “That is a gift to the next generation. It’s big enough for a canoe trip one day, a bike trip the next day and a hiking trip the next day.”

Friends of Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge has information and volunteering opportunities at

“I know a lot of our members are itchy to get out there and do bird surveys,” Fessett said. “That is what we are looking forward to.”

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