As spring begins to usher in longer days and warmer weather, many people are anxious to get outside and take a break from the constant barrage of virtual meetings, pesky spam emails and the family members that have been driving everyone crazy since the beginning of the pandemic. Luckily, for nature seeking DuPage County residents, the local forest preserves offer an escape for those experiencing Zoom fatigue.
For over 100 years, people of all ages have flocked to DuPage County’s forest preserves for recreational activities, however, according to the Site Manager for the DuPage County Forest Preserve District Jay Johnson, the preserves saw unprecedented changes over the course of 2020.
“This time last year we saw real influxes of people that were out using our preserves in a big way,” Johnson said. “Just about every day, when the weather was right, it was like a Saturday.”
In March 2020, the concern over coronavirus grew and lockdown orders were being put into place, natural areas, parks and preserves became a safe haven for those bogged down by online work. People could safely visit DuPage County Preserves to exercise, keep up with friends (albeit socially distanced) and relax without the fear of getting sick.
“A lot of the public rediscovered us and maybe even discovered us for the first time. People were able to stay close to home and were able to get out and enjoy nature,” Johnson explained. “As far as numbers go, we had about 4.6 million visitors in 2019. When it came to 2020, we had about 6.3 million.”
As the forest preserves grew in popularity, COVID-19 state restrictions were followed. Due to the large crowds, sanitation was ramped up and the preserves had to limit the in-person programs that had been offered in the past.
“The COVID-19 pandemic really brought us back to our roots within the district and with the ranger operations,” Johnson said. “We pulled back on some of the bigger programs or events and just went to what we called our core duties. As part of the ranger staff, we were out opening the preserves. We were out cleaning, sanitizing and making sure that everything was safe for the public to use.”
Before the pandemic, the DuPage County Forest Preserve District hosted a plethora of events, group activities and educational programs for children and adults. The parks offered wedding spaces, group picnics, camping for Cub Scouts and families, boat rentals, guided hikes, bird watching groups, meditation hikes and so much more.
The district had to cancel all in-person group activities and events as COVID-19 became a major public health concern last spring. The DuPage Forest Preserve District did not, however, have to eliminate all interactive activities outright. Deb Humiston, the communications lead for the district, explained how programs and events began their transition to an online format under lockdown guidelines.
“What we did was offer up a Facebook live event so that people could still experience [the event],” Humiston said when describing the district’s online presence over the course of 2020. “We put those up on the website, and they were all a kind of one-stop shop so that parents, if they needed educational things to help their kids, they could always refer to those, either the games or activities.”
The forest preserve district posted virtual puzzles, instructive videos for art projects and online scavenger hunts as they transitioned online. Now, it has been over a year since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. With more and more people getting vaccinated and restrictions easing up, some of the programs are finally moving back to group scenarios, socially distanced and in-person activities.
The beginning of April 2021 saw the revival of the boat rental program at Blackwell Forest Preserve in Warrenville as well as a county wide reintroduction of hiking and bird watching programs. Group camping at Blackwell and boat rentals at Herrick Lake Forest Preserve in Wheaton are set to reopen this May. All of these programs will follow CDC guidelines and will require participants to socially distance and wear masks.
“We’re just kind of testing the waters to see if people are interested and to see if they are comfortable,” said Humiston. “Everybody just wants to get back to normal, and this is a sign that maybe we’re on our way.”
As budding trees, warm weather, and the chirping of birds act as a reminder that summer months are fast approaching, many people may find themselves wanting to get out into nature. With more than 160 miles of trails in 60 preserves, the DuPage County Forest Preserve District ensures the county’s residents are never more than a stone’s throw away from accessible public lands.
“When you look at the map of DuPage County and look at the amount of green space, certainly that’s getting more and more restricted as time goes on,” Johnson explained. “That’s the beauty of the forest preserve and our leaders who had the foresight to set aside these lands, it is a wonderful thing.”
“What we have around here is just amazing,” Johnson said. “Other states, they’ll have parks, but it’s not the same as what we have.”
For more information regarding the DuPage County Forest Preserve District and the many programs they offer, visit: dupageforest.org