Crowdsourcing a National Wildlife Refuge

January 26, 2016

~By Patrick Williams, Class of 2016

Photo Credit: Openlands

Photo Credit: Openlands

During the 2015-2016 winter break I had the opportunity to work for a Chicago-based conservation organization called Openlands, developing communications materials which will promote one of their recent projects, Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. As I read up on Hackmatack, I was instantly sold on its ecological significance, its proximity to Milwaukee and Chicago (my hometown), and the fact that it will be a multi-use conservation site.

Unfortunately, most people don’t know what the heck a wildlife refuge is and my job of explaining its purpose took on an unexpected dynamic after the recent events at Malheur NWR in Oregon. Public perceptions aside, what makes the Refuge truly remarkable is not just the habitat it protects, but how it’s being built. Hackmatack is, in every sense, at the forefront of how we do conservation work in the 21st Century.

The National Wildlife Refuge System

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Most people’s exposure to the National Wildlife Refuge System is limited, or they recognize the name ANWR, but few can explain what it is. Teddy Roosevelt established the National Wildlife Refuge System in 1903 and it has since grown into a system of over 560 conservation sites, encompassing more than 150,000,000 acres. Wildlife refuges are managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates as part of the Department of the Interior.

The primary goal of the Refuge System is to protect and enhance habitat for wildlife, while providing public benefit, such as educational resources and recreation opportunities. Hackmatack is the only such refuge within 100 miles of Chicago, making it accessible to over 9 million people who live within an hour’s drive. Additionally, Hackmatack sits on the Illinois-Wisconsin border and after gaining support from the congressional delegations of those states, as well as their respective governors, then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar formally declared protected status for the reserve in August, 2012. However, earning that designation was only the beginning of the work ahead.

Of Global Significance

Hackmatack takes its name from the Algonquin word for the tamarack larch and it is one of the few places to see these trees in the Lower 48. The vast landscapes of the Refuge are home to 109 species of concern including bald eagles and the endangered whooping crane, who find shelter at Hackmatack along their migratory journey. It sits at the crossroads of the great forests to the east and the great plans to the west, making Hackmatack the site of some of the last remaining fragments of globally-rare ecosystems such as oak savannas and mesic prairies. The retreat of the Laurentide Ice Sheet during the Ice Age carved an undulating landscape of rolling hills and pristine waterways that shelter mosaics of wildflowers and tallgrasses. While Hackmatack sits on the Illinois-Wisconsin border, it is tied to a network of ecosystems that reach west across the Great Plains, east through the Great Lakes and north into Canada.

The story of Hackmatack is remarkable in its own right: 12 years ago a small group of locals gathered around a kitchen table to discuss their vision to preserve a landscape that truly mattered. Through their efforts of organizing their local communities and carrying their message all the way to Washington, they earned the designation for Hackmatack as a protected area. That designation further means that the Refuge is an essential patch in our national landscape and an integral part of our country’s intimate connection to the wilderness.

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Conserving Wilderness in the 21st Century

What’s been unique to Hackmatack this whole time has been the strategy for establishment. The locals who began the work carried this project from the ground-up, winning the support of the Federal Government. Rather than surveying a region and designating a small portion for preservation, this refuge had to been envisioned acre-by-acre.

Over the next few years, Hackmatack will link existing conservation sites into an 11,200 refuge. In order to develop the necessary scale to allow wildlife to thrive, a coalition of private partners are jumpstarting the process of building Hackmatack.

Private organizations such as Openlands are coordinating with Fish & Wildlife Services to acquire new parcels of land in order to grow the Refuge. They are also working with private citizens in the area to develop what are known as conservation easements, which promote best-practices on private property without altering existing land use. This means everyone from farmers to fisherman to families have the opportunity to provide a home to recovering wildlife populations.

The days of demarcating mass tracts of land for protection are over, but that doesn’t mean conservation work ends. Between private partners growing Hackmatack parcel-by-parcel and working with locals to brainstorm the best way to balance conservation with our own everyday needs, this truly a process of crowdsourcing a wildlife refuge. This type of conservation work requires us to see landscapes not for what they are now, but for what they can be in the future.

Projects like Hackmatack are not only how we will combat the effects of climate change, but they are also a way to preserve what our planet looked like before urbanization. What began as a conversation among friends quickly grew into an innovative strategy for conservation. It’s 12 years of work into the process of establishing a wildlife refuge, but Hackmatack is 10,000 years in the making.

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