The Forest Preserve District of Will County recently launched a campaign asking residents to “Don’t Be a Jerk” at its many preserves.
And what constitutes being a jerk? Patrons not keeping their dog leashed, not properly disposing of garbage, not properly using its 125 miles of preserve trails, and not properly disposing of fishing lines and hooks all qualify.
“We get pretty consistent complaints about a few different elements in the forest preserves,” said Ralph Schultz, the chief operating officer of the Forest Preserve District of Will County.
From January 2018 through June, the forest preserve police issued 41 citations related to the concerns addressed in the “Don’t Be a Jerk” campaign. While it is a small percentage of overall citations issued by police, forest preserve officials believe the behavior is happening on a larger scale, based on feedback from the public.
Schultz said they get complaints from families who may have a child who is afraid of dogs running loose through a preserve, or patrons who use the trails finding litter as they walk, even though the forest preserve provides trash cans. While staff and volunteers regularly clean the preserves, he said it is a challenge to keep track of nearly 22,000 acres of land.
To combat such behavior, the forest preserve will be posting signs, such as one that reads, “Don’t be a butthead!” When patrons throw cigarette butts on the ground, it’s potentially harmful to the wildlife on preserve grounds. The sign attempts to remind patrons to dispose of the butts in a proper receptacle.
“So a decision was made earlier this year to try to get ahead of some of this and try to just help people be better patrons, be more respectful of others who are in the forest preserves,” Schultz said.
In addition, the forest preserve’s marketing team will be releasing short, somewhat comedic videos demonstrating the type of behavior the campaign is attempting to address.
“We wanted to take a new and creative approach,” said Laura Kiran, the district’s director of marketing and communications. “We are constantly working to educate people, to give them friendly reminders as well. But we thought we wanted to be very responsive to the public, so if we know these concerns are out there, maybe we need a new, more creative, bolder approach.”
In the first video, titled “Don’t be a Jerk: Dog Owner Edition,” a dog owner, played by one of the Forest Preserve District police officers, can be seen letting his canine run free, lay on a picnic table and even relieve itself without the owner cleaning up afterward.
“He thinks the rules don’t apply to him and treats all of the preserves and trails like his personal off-leash playground for his dog,” the video’s narrator says. “How many ways can one dog owner be a jerk?”
While the language is meant to be attention-grabbing, Schultz said they want the campaign to be a tongue-in-cheek approach to raise awareness of improper preserve etiquette and to also thank those patrons who already follow the rules. He said that focusing more on using social media has helped engagement with residents about this and other matters.
“We wanted it to be something that caught people off guard,” Schultz said. “But we have fun with it.”