Illinois Master Naturalists want to experience as much of the natural world as possible and share that passion with their fellow citizens. Peoria County Master Naturalist, Julie Robinson, took this mission to heart when observing students spending less and less time outdoors and more time in front of a screen. Throughout her life as a teacher and a community member, people would always come to her to for a place to go for nature and outdoor exploration, and after becoming a Master Naturalist is 2018, she became inspired to make this wealth of information public.
Thus came the creation of the website Local OPAL (Outdoor Playing and Learning): A free resource that provides a list of natural areas across Fulton, Marshall, Peoria, Tazewell, Mason, and Woodford counties. There are multiple ways to find a specific location: areas by site, areas by county, areas by activity. Whatever you are looking for, Local Opal can help you find it. And once you are on the webpage of a specific location, Local OPAL offers a wealth of information on that site from activities available, dog friendliness, terrain, bathroom accessibility, historical/geological significance, and even some of “OPAL’s Observations & Opinions”. Instead of digging around the internet for the right place for your family that allows dogs and has stroller accessible trails, Local OPALs got all of that information for you.
Creating a website at first seemed intimidating, but with the help of some really bright friends, Julie purchased the domain and started playing around. Since the website's launch in January of 2020, Local OPAL features over 289 locations across six counties. The website receives over 1200-1300 visits per month and beyond the natural area features, you can also find ideas for playing & learning outside, read up on the research of the benefits of nature and the outdoors, and explore some local challenges.
How did Julie do it all you ask? With a lot of hard work, determination, and exploration of the natural world. After creating her initial list, she couldn’t believe how many natural areas there were in her home county alone! And how little information there was out there about some of these spaces. Some didn’t even exist on Google Maps! Detective work is needed to discover all of the details about these locations and sometimes to even find them in the first place. Julie holds a broad definition of natural areas for the website and posts everything-from managed lawn park area to a natural wooded area; Local OPAL will include anywhere that someone can find solace in an outdoor space.
Through this project, Julie has had the pleasure exploring the many natural areas of central Illinois and more importantly, brought accessibility of natural areas to a whole new level and hopes to keep expanding to more counties across the state. McLean county is next on her list as well as continuing to add activities people can do in nature. In her eyes, the more people outside, the better and the more places she includes, the more options people have to find nature near and around them.
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Abigail Garofalo is an Energy and Environmental Stewardship Educator for Cook County. She manages the Cook County Master Naturalist program and the Conservation@Home program for University of Illinois Extension. She has a BS in Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences and MS in Agricultural Leadership Education both from University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. Her background in is environmental outreach and interpretation and works to create a culture of environmentalism through community buidling.
Naturalist News is a blog by University of Illinois Extension Master Naturalist staff and volunteers who bring you stories highlighting the individuals, places, wildlife and plants that make this state amazing. Join us each week to learn something new, be inspired and become connected to your own community by recognizing the amazing ways we are all intertwined.