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Refuge plan moves forward

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service completed an environmental assessment evaluating the proposal to establish Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge in parts of northwestern Illinois and southwestern Wisconsin.

While the study area encompassed about 350,000 acres of land, a preferred alternative is roughly 11,200 acres. 

“The bulk is in the center and west [of the study area],” said Gary Muehlenhardt, USFWS conservation planner. While the study area includes parts of four counties and a sizable area of Wisconsin, the preferred plan includes only McHenry County and a small portion of Wisconsin land. While Woodstock would not be included in the plan, parts of unincorporated McHenry County with  Woodstock addresses, Greenwood and Wonder Lake are included in the proposed refuge.

Muehlenhardt said the alternative is preferred because of the way the natural vegetation and soil types worked out during the assessment. The goal would be to restore native prairies and protect what already exists on the proposed refuge site.

Despite being the preferred alternative, steps still need to be taken before the Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge is established. 

Since the environmental assessment has been completed, the USFWS has hosted two public hearings, one in Genoa City, Wis., and another at the Lost Valley Visitor Center in Glacial Park. The hearings brought in a total of about 100 and 300 residents, respectively. 

Muehlenhardt said he received more than 500 comments from people who attended the meetings, adding that the USFWS is accepting additional comments until Friday, April 27. Comments may be sent through the service’s planning website at www.fws.gov/midwest/planning/Hackmatack/index.html.  

“The vast majority of the comments are in favor of the proposal,” Muehlenhardt said.

Still, some people have had concerns about the process for approving the refuge. The establishment of a Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge ultimately falls to one person — Daniel Ashe, director of the USFWS. He will make his decision based on a recommendation by Thomas Melius, Midwest regional director for the USFWS.

Muehlenhardt said a vast majority of complaints came from snowmobile enthusiasts concerned about what would become of their trails. 

“Snowmobilers have worked hard with land owners to find routes,” Quinn Keefe, vice president of the Woodstock Snowmobile Club, told The Independent before the environmental assessment was conducted.

The USFWS sent letters to snowmobile clubs and riders who expressed concerns over these issues.

“During the initial public scoping and outreach for the study we have received comments from snowmobile riders [who] are worried about the potential impacts of future refuge lands on existing trails and their sport in general,” the letter stated. “It is important to understand that the Service will not purchase any of the existing state and county conservation lands that currently have snowmobile trails.”

Snowmobile clubs, however, have trail agreements existing beyond conservation land. According to USFWS, off-road vehicle use, including ATVs and snowmobiles, are not generally permitted “due to impacts on vegetation, disturbance to wildlife and other refuge users and safety and liability issues.

“It is possible that at some time in the future a landowner would offer land for sale to the refuge that contains a portion of an existing snowmobile trail,” the USFWS letter stated. “We do not expect this situation to occur very often. The Service would work with the landowner and snowmobile clubs to either reroute the trail or encourage a third party to obtain a permanent trail easement prior to the federal purchase.”

Muehlenhardt said the preferred plan for the refuge largely avoids current snowmobile trails, with the exception being a small area west of Genoa City. He said USFWS plans to address the issue as it moves forward.

While a date hasn’t been set for a decision by the USFWS, Muehlenhardt said his best guess is that a decision will be made by the fall. Should the refuge be approved, it would not officially be established until a property is purchased or donated to USFWS. 

Muehlenhardt reiterated that land purchased or acquired by the USFWS will only take place with willing sellers or donors. All current local zoning will remain in place, meaning development could continue on property included in the proposed refuge.

Lenore Beyer-Clow, a Woodstock resident and policy director for Openlands, was part of the grassroots group that started discussions about the possible refuge.

“People think of national wildlife refuges as being these huge things out west,” Beyer-Clow said before the USFWS conducted environmental assessment. “But the new thing is [establishing] more urban refuges. They also need to be where people live.”

There is not a national wildlife refuge located within 120 miles of the Chicago, which would change if Hackmatack is established. Beyer-Clow said its close proximity to Milwaukee, Rockford and Madison would help bring an appreciation of the area’s natural characteristics to people more familiar with an urban setting. She said the result of additional visitors could mean more tax dollars and a strengthened local economy.