DuPage County Forest Preserve officials will spend nearly $175,000 to continue building an educational outreach website.
The site, observeyourpreserve.org, launched in October and is a partnership between the forest preserve district and the DuPage Regional Office of Education. Although the site is live, officials say it is under construction and highly incomplete, but it will soon bring a new measure of interaction between county residents and their forest preserves.
Right now, visitors can see blogs from forest preserves naturalists working in the field, or learn about a particular plant or animal they've encountered in a preserve. Teachers and youth group leaders also view information on all of the district's formal education, and visitors can provide feedback on the developing site.
David Guritz, forest preserve education director, said Observe Your Preserve was born when his office and the natural resources department partnered to get citizens more involved, especially in the district's natural resource monitoring and management program.
"One goal was to create programs that would reach all of DuPage, not just those taking place at our centers" Guritz said. "So it really started as a project aimed to connect the public to the wealth of data and natural resource history and knowledge that has been collected over the last 20 years."
In the past 10 months, the forest preserve has not strongly publicized the site since it is still incomplete. Education Outreach Division Manager Marcy Rogge said, for example, the site aims to have information on roughly 4,000 animal and plant species found in the preserves. But currently there is only content for about 900.
Still, the site has attracted about 1,700 unique visitors, officials said, who spend an average of about 15 minutes exploring its pages. Now the second phase of development aims to make the information more complete for them.
This week, officials unveiled the improvements that will be funded by the $175,000 expansion of the site. Upgrades will be "observer-centric," Guritz said, and will include enchanted navigation and experiences, allowing the site to "meet" visitors where they are and provide tools to explore habitats, species, features and preserve amenities nearby. The site will also encourage community engagement, officials said, by allowing visitors to post their preserve observations.
But Rogge said users should know the site is purely educational.
"We're not expecting and won't have the capacity to respond to people if they send us a picture of, say, a downed tree," she said. "So it's intended to be, if someone does or sees something really cool in the preserves, they can share their experiences."
The forest preserve has applied for a $150,000 grant for the site through the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and officials said they expect to learn if it is approved later this month. If approved, some of the funds may be put toward the current $175,000 expansion this is expected to be complete by next April. But some of the money may also be used for future expansions, as Observe Your Preserve's development will be ongoing.
"It's not going to be a finished product because it will evolve over time," forest preserve Education Outreach Specialist Chris Gingrich said. "We plan to add elements like historical points of interest, photographs related to that point, and more educational resources that teachers can use."