Illinois sets coastal priorities with online community

Photo: Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

A new website allows Illinois residents to share their concerns regarding the Lake Michigan watershed. Photo: Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Want to protect your Great Lakes coast? Now you can direct resource protection with a click of a mouse.

The Illinois Coastal Management Program has a new tool to listen to how the public wants to restore and protect coastal resources.

When a community or organization has an idea for something that needs improvement or expansion, leaders used to attend a town hall meeting to voice their opinions.

But often only a small, passionate, niche group shows up, and their ideas hit a wall, said Diane Tecic, the Illinois Department of Natural Resource’s coastal program manager. Now people can turn to Illinois Coastal Priorities, an online tool to  share what they think needs to be done to maintain the state’s Lake Michigan watershed. They can ask the public for ideas, upload media and share their support for other projects.

And then, some of those projects will actually go into action.

Here’s how it works: Find the section for your county or region, and explore the available topics. (Are you passionate about non-point source pollution? Economic development? How about climate change?) Then vote on subtopics or create your own.

But act fast — voting on all topics ends Monday, April 22, with the exception of the Waukegan Area of Concern, which closes May 7.

“Our biggest challenge was figuring out a good strategy to set priorities on some fairly technical issues,” said Lisa Cotner, natural resources specialist at the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. “No one wants to complete a 30-page questionnaire. So we needed to find a way to make the process both interesting and meaningful.”

“We thought this might be perfect for what we wanted to do,” Tecic said. “We want to be responsive to the needs of our communities. Now we’re getting direct feedback that we can use to either allocate points for specific types of projects or focus granting efforts in one topic.”

The site went live in February, and interest is growing as people discover this new outlet. Hot-button issues include habitat, ecosystems and natural area restoration. Lake County’s section, for example, has had 1,097 interactions.

“We were a bit slow getting the word out initially, but now we’ve gotten a good number of responses,” Tecic said. “Certainly people are participating on it. People think this is a great new tool.”

Illinois Coastal Priorities website.

Illinois Coastal Priorities website.

On average, two topics are live on the site for two weeks. The public can upvote or downvote to show which programs they would like implemented, Tecic said. The implementation plan will be compiled over the next eight months.

“As we develop our coastal grants program, the stakeholder-identified priorities will be incorporated as top priorities for grant funding,” Cotner said. “Also, when we apply for programmatic funding from [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] each year, we plan to draw from those to determine where our focus should be.”

Illinois’ coastal management program was formed in January 2012. The prioritization program was born out of an interest to expand the Environmental Protection Agency’s Lake Michigan management plan to the digital world.

“We wanted to work online so we could get more participation from stakeholders,” Tecic said. “It’s a really great and easy way for them to connect to important ideas and gather information on their timeframes.”

If the program proves successful, it will be used in the long-term.

“We may end up using it as a tool in future years to see if we need to reprioritize our efforts,” Tecic said.

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