Recreation & Destinations

815 Outside Builds Enjoyment of Natural Areas

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This county-wide initiative is encouraging residents to put down their electronics and enjoy the diverse natural landscapes inside our county forest preserves. Learn how you can get involved.

815 Outside invites families to visit the many forest preserves, parks and land trust properties scattered across Winnebago County. (Jamie B. Johannsen/ Forest Preserves of Winnebago County photos)

815 Outside invites families to visit the many forest preserves, parks and land trust properties scattered across Winnebago County. (Jamie B. Johannsen/ Forest Preserves of Winnebago County photos)

Put down the smartphone, close the laptop and turn off your television. It’s time to enjoy the great outdoors.

That’s the premise of 815 Outside, a Winnebago County initiative spearheaded by area nonprofit and service organizations.

“The two big reasons for establishing 815 Outside are to promote healthy living in our community and to promote the positive economic development that can come with the large amount of natural areas that we have,” says Ann Wasser, director of Severson Dells Nature Center, in Winnebago, Ill. “Who doesn’t want to live in a community full of thriving green space?”

The goal of the initiative is to encourage residents and their families to take advantage of the outdoor recreational opportunities in the county.

“Getting away from the screens and being outside helps kids learn better and improve their attention span,” says Jack Armstrong, a board member with the Rockford Park District and volunteer nature educator. “There is a great benefit to the community to go outside and enjoy nature.”

The county has upwards of 20,000 acres of green space between forest preserves, parks, and land trust properties, many of which are either underutilized or unnoticed.

“A lot of people don’t even know about these preserves and parks in the area,” Wasser says. “That’s a recurring theme we hear.”

One often-forgotten place is Blackhawk Springs Forest Preserve, where 815 Outside was launched this spring. The 600-acre preserve on Rockford’s south side has more than 10 miles of hiking trails, along with other outdoor activities.

As part of 815 Outside, residents and their families are encouraged to visit trails, ride their bikes, go fishing, and enjoy a plethora of winter activities as the seasons change.

“There are a lot of people who are uncomfortable because spending time outside is not necessarily part of how they grew up, so this is an opportunity for them to find resources and places to go,” Wasser says. “A lot of people come to a forest preserve, but they don’t know that you can go bird watching, paddling or biking. There are a lot of things people can do, but if you weren’t brought up doing these things, you may be more hesitant. We want to lower that barrier, so people can feel welcome in these spaces.”

Wasser says community health is another driver of this initiative, which is also designed to get people moving. Winnebago County is the third-unhealthiest county in the state based on a variety of indicators, including heart disease, diabetes and obesity, among others.

“We have an opportunity to make real, positive strides in the mental and physical health of our community if we can get our residents outside and actively using these great spaces,” Wasser says. “As Winnebago County becomes a health care destination with our three health systems, we should be promoting a healthier community for our residents.”

Visit 815outside.com to find a comprehensive guide to the area’s green spaces, outdoor activities, and free and low-cost nature-related events or find 815 Outside on Facebook.

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