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Environmental Network Now On-Line at Brookfield Zoo

by Laura Jasiek

Like many parts of the country, the Chicagoland area is fortunate to have a vast number of environmental organizations in place addressing a wide range of issues, from prairie restoration and global deforestation to urban renewal and increased pollution. However, although this wealth of information exists, it used to take weeks, perhaps months, to track down the proper sources.

The Chicagoland Environmental Network (CEN) was established at Brookfield Zoo to encourage the exchange of information and resources between environmental organizations and to provide public access to environmental volunteer opportunities in northern Illinois. The concept of a network was formed during a 1992 meeting initiated by Dr. Pamela Parker, conservation biologist and assistant director of the zoo, and attended by representatives of local volunteer organizations and the Chicago Zoological Society. The meeting was an opportunity to familiarize local environmental and conservation groups with the work and membership of other organizations.

Dr. Carol Saunders, chair of Brookfield Zoo's Communications Research Department, collaborated with Joseph A. Tecson, a Society trustee, in generating a plan of development for an environmental network. The goals established were to:

• enhance the ability of the members of the Chicagoland environmental community to communicate with each other about conservation and environmental issues and activities;
• leverage the resources of the many conservation groups in the region, and
• promote public understanding of conservation issues and actions.

Whereas numerous attempts to produce a database of conservation contacts had already been made, the organizers of CEN tried something new by hiring a full-time program coordinator to solicit members in the network, answer all calls from the public regarding environmental opportunities, update the information in the database, and facilitate greater communication and personal interaction, resulting in network-user satisfaction.

Naturally, these ideas required funding, which fortunately came through a generous grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 5 office, with additional support from the Chicago Zoological Society. A steering committee, formed by representatives from the various groups and Brookfield Zoo, conducted a search for a network coordinator, who was hired and began identifying and compiling lists of conservation groups in January 1994. The coordinator reports to the chair of the zoo's Conservation Biology Department, with further guidance from the steering committee.

The coordinator has developed an extensive survey and sent it to roughly 330 organizations identified as active within the six-county Chicagoland region. The date, 220 surveys have been completed and returned to Brookfield Zoo for entry into a database. Additional surveys will filter in as awareness of the network grows and more groups show interest in getting involved. Varying greatly in size and scope, member groups include smaller grassroots organizations working on a local scale, governmental agencies providing vital regulatory and educational services, and large international organizations working toward global solutions. The common thread is a commitment to preserving the earth through environmental education and empowerment of the public. All agree that communication and cooperation are the keys to success in the environmental arena.

The network's database increases the visibility of these regional conservation groups and agencies by providing information such as an organization's name, purpose, current emphasis, number of members, fees, meeting times, volunteer opportunities, and available resources. Those who might use the network include school children interested in starting a recycling project, college students preparing for environmental careers, professionals seeking volunteer opportunities, citizen groups needing guidance in planning local cleanup projects, reporters searching for information or news sources,

Illinois Parks & Recreation • July/August 1995 • 21

Children from the Nicholson Specialty School of Math and Science Children from the Nicholson Specialty School of Math and Science contacted the Chicagoland Environmental Network to organize a project collecting seeds from native plants at Wolf Woods Prairie. The seeds will be used to restore a prairie near the school.

and employees and volunteers of member organizations wishing to share information about their own activities.

The Chicago Zoological Society is a natural participant in a network of this sort. Its mission is to help people develop a sustainable and harmonious relationship with nature. One way is to meet organizational responsibilities across traditional boundaries inside and outside the zoo. With its potential to channel roughly two million visitors per year into conservation action at a broader level by improving access to environmental opportunities and information, the Chicagoland Environmental Network is consistent with the zoo's vision.

Moreover, the Society offers many professional resources to the environmental community. Zoo director Dr. George B. Rabb serves as chairman of the Species Survival Commission of IUCN—The World Conservation Union, which coordinates the work of more than 5,000 scientists, field biologists, and naturalists throughout the world. Dr. Rabb's leadership in international conservation is complemented by the involvement of Brookfield Zoo staff in 26 Species Survival Plan programs; formal research in animal behavior, ecology, nutrition, genetics, and visitor behavior; and staff service on advisory committees guiding research by students at eight universities.

Many zoo departments are staffed by experts in a variety of scientific and conservation-related fields who would be invaluable consultants on important environmental issues. Sharing the scientific expertise will help create dynamic relationships among environmental groups for the benefit of the public. CEN member organizations also benefit by access to zoo services and facilities such as Discovery Center. Brookfield Zoo cannot provide direct costs for other groups, but it can support education programs by offering technical facilities such as audiovisual services, which can produce training videos for projects such as prairie brush managements or composting. Brookfield Zoo can provide larger, more visible meeting spaces and invite public participation in activities sponsored by community volunteer organizations.

CEN can provide a meeting ground for member organizations with disparate interests because it focuses on simple services and practical solutions to common problems faced by all organizations rather than on specific issues. Such an approach allows for flexibility in the development of a working network with future potential for expansion beyond

22 • Illinois Parks & Recreation • July/August 1995

the zoo grounds. If successful in its first two years, the network may provide other institutions and public areas within the Chicagoland region with computer nodes that could be accessed by interested parties. Moreover, CEN is networking with other organizations interested in getting organizations on-line with Internet and Econet. These developments will ensure maximum accessibility to environmental information.

Through CEN, member organizations have an opportunity to participate in topic-related meetings to learn beneficial new skills or techniques. One example is the public relations workshop held in the fall of 1993. Representatives attended presentations on skills useful to all environmental advocates: how to deal with the media, prepare press releases and public service announcements, and conduct successful interviews. They also learned about the work of other organizations and shared information about themselves in a relaxed and informal setting.

Plans are in the works for a symposium at Brookfield Zoo spotlighting the various approaches to habitat restoration being implemented by different groups active in the region. The symposium would feature presentations by key experts on the issue.

Becoming a member of the Chicagoland Environmental Network is simple. A representative from an environmental organization can call the coordinator's office and, if interested, request a survey, which is divided into six categories:

• background information, including contact names, phone numbers, and addresses
• a description of the organization, including its mission statement
• resources, knowledge, and expertise available to other groups or the general public
• services and benefits the organization hopes to gain through participation in the network
• projects or activities that could benefit from volunteer participation
• volunteer opportunities

Once this survey is completed and returned, the information is entered into the computer database, ready for instant retrieval.

If someone is interested in volunteer opportunities, the coordinator can process the request in a general sense or by region or area of interest and then retrieve a list of options. A user can explore several organizations in extensive detail without feeling pressured into choosing one over another, suiting individual interests and needs.

Through the CEN, the Chicago Zoological Society, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 5, and the 220 members of the Chicagoland Environmental Network are working to advance a sustainable plan for coexistence between humans and nature. CEN is the instrument for furthering that plan by reaching out to help people get involved and make a difference. Phone the CEN at 708-485-0263, ext. 396 to learn how to join in and make a difference in conservation yourself.

Laura Jasiek is the Coordinator of the Chicagoland Environmental Network, headquartered at the Brookfield Zoo. © Chicago Zoological Society, all rights reserved, used with permission.

Volunteers conduct controlled burns at carefully selected sites to eliminate non-native vegetation that chokes out prairie plants native to northeastern Illinois. Metro Fire

Illinois Parks & Recreation • July/August 1995 • 23

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