One of its primary goals, says Prof. William Cronon, is "getting people to fall in love with the place." The environmental historian and geographer is touting the interactive online map of UW-Madison's Lakeshore Nature Preserve, launched the Sunday before last as part of the preserve's vast new Web site.
Extending 4.3 miles along Lake Mendota's south shore from Muir Woods west to Eagle Heights Woods, the 300-acre refuge encompasses Picnic and Frautschi points, the Class of 1918 and University Bay marshes, Eagle Heights Community Gardens and a host of other features.
As a complement to the educational and research missions of the preserve itself, the map provides powerful tools for researchers as well as visitors to the refuge. It is loaded with more than 300 information windows that serve as links to a comparable number of Web pages on the larger site at lakeshorepreserve.wisc.edu, containing more than 2,400 photographs and video clips as well as articles detailing the preserve's landscapes, history, plant and animal communities.
Since the site's introduction on Nov. 19, Cronon has fielded emails about its features from as far afield as Iceland. But his favorite email so far arrived from much closer to home -- "from a guy who said he'd been using these natural areas for 25 years and was amazed at how much he didn't know."
Indeed, the interactive map contains so much cartographic, photographic and textual information that it is difficult to avoid learning something. Starting with a base map, users can craft their own detailed, customized maps by zooming in and adding trails, soil types, watershed data, vanished and existing human structures, topographic elevations, parking areas, bus stops, points of interest and other layers.
"Everyone has a different way of connecting with these areas," Cronon observes. "One of my favorite layers is the 'Have You Seen This?' feature." He selects the option, and more than two dozen
little question marks pop up on the base map. He zooms in on one, and a click of the mouse brings up the image of a headstone bearing the inscription:
GRENNIE 1939-1954 OUR DOG
The image is accompanied by the story behind the gravesite, and an explanation of its significance within the greater historical context of the Jackson estate which once stood nearby.
Clicking on another question mark brings up a photo of the old tent colony west of Frautschi Point, with yet another story and more historical context -- this time detailing the colony's existence as summer housing for students from 1912 until the debut of Eagle Heights Apartments in 1962.
The map also includes toggling and animation tools that allow users to study and analyze a progression of aerial photographs showing structures and vegetative ground cover from 1927 to the present, with the added option to extrapolate into the future. "This," says Cronon, "has huge pedagogical and research value."
Financed by a donation from Drs. Eleanor and Peter Blitzer, the interactive online map and the preserve's new Web site represent six months of effort by dozens of people. In addition to Cronon, who supervised this project, UW-Madison Prof. Mark Harrower shaped it, as did a team from the UW-Madison Cartography Lab, Web designer Melanie McCalmont, UW-Madison environmental manager Daniel Einstein, preserve manager Catherine Bruner, members of the preserve's Friends group, and too many others to cite before the music cues a cut to commercial.
Cronon hopes the resulting resource will prove its worth as a mechanism for defending the preserve against development pressures. By providing users with the means to create and use their own maps, he suggests, the site may help induce a broader public sense of holding a stake in the refuge.
"There's always a good reason to build a new building," Cronon allows. But where to build that new building is not always so obvious. If some view open space as a good prospect for development, others see it as a fine opportunity to protect and preserve.