By Laura D.C. KolnoskiThe Monmouth Conservation Foundation is expanding its outreach in 2016 to more inclusively reach all ages and more towns with its message of preserving and enjoying our shared natural habitats and the creatures therein. New acquisitions are also in the works to increase and secure the county’s dwindling green space.Founded in 1977, the 501(c) 3 Monmouth Conservation Foundation (MCF) has saved over 22,500 acres of open space, farmland, woodlands, and wetlands at 63 sites countywide. While long successful in getting concerned citizens with deep pockets to attend high profile events and support the MCF’s activities, the organization is placing increased emphasis on instilling understanding of and respect for the environment on younger citizens.In 2013, the MCF initiated its Kids for Conservation Program for preschool and kindergarten students. The academic enrichment program teaches youngsters about the environment with an age appropriate curriculum focused on land and wildlife protection and conservation. Lesson plans are provided to schools to help students create related art projects. The MCF awards prizes to schools based on creativity and how the class demonstrated what they learned.“Kids for Conservation is expanding to include high school and community groups through planting pollinator gardens, so it’s not just the youngsters anymore,” said MCF executive director since 2012, William D. Kastning. “We are expanding environmental outreach in 2016 with the introduction of an awareness campaign, ‘Project Pollinator’ about the importance of protecting pollinator species such as butterflies, birds, bats, and bees.”The project’s goal is to inspire the creation of habitats in schools, community, and private gardens while increasing awareness of environmental threats pollinator species face. The foundation is partnering with Monmouth University and other educational institutions to develop curriculum for participating schools. Some schools will be visited by a Monmouth University student teacher who will lead the class in interactive exercises about pollinators. More details on the program, expected to launch this spring, will be available at the MCF website: monmouthconservation.org.Monmouth Conservation Director William Kastning“We are expanding our focus to be more outreach-oriented and our children’s programs are a big part of that,” Kastning said. “Project Pollinator will have a new urban focus and will include Red Bank, Long Branch, Freehold and Asbury Park kids.”Asbury Park youth have already been engaged through the MCF’s successful fundraising campaign to help bring that city’s 1.3-acre Springwood Avenue Park to fruition. Stepping out of its image as an organization largely interested in rural and more upscale communities, the MCF made headlines when its board of trustees decided to join Asbury’s Interfaith Neighbors, local and county government, and other funding sources in raising and contributing funds to build the park on Asbury’s west side.To support it, the MCF held “hugely successful” events at two popular Asbury Park restaurants that raised $67,000, Kastning said. Afterward, the board added $100,000 to the effort. The project, once empty lots, is scheduled to open this spring.“The board decided to follow the county’s lead with its open space preservation grants, paying after the fact once all is OK to ensure the money is being wisely and well spent,” Kastning said, adding donors welcomed the new urban focus.The foundation does not own any land, but holds conservation and agriculture easements to protect sensitive environments in perpetuity. The binding easements allow landowners to retain ownership while giving up certain rights such as development. In addition to acting as a facilitator in land acquisitions, the MCF stewards the easements and ensures restrictions are upheld.As part of the foundation’s strategic plan, Kastning said 40 properties are currently at various stages in the acquisition process. Working in tandem with the county this year, the MCF will engage with landowners to increase existing parks and target properties for preservation. In Keyport, the 62-acre Aeromarine site, formerly home to military aircraft manufacturing, is being converted to parkland. In Atlantic Highlands, the MCF has been working to remediate and turn a former oil facility with seven bay front acres into a recreation area, preventing 20 homes from being built there. Near the new bridge connecting Red Bank and the River Plaza section of Middletown, the waterfront Swimming River Park will soon be transformed into park featuring passive recreational options including a boat launch and sledding hill.Kastning said MCF’s first annual community meeting will be scheduled in February, open to those seeking to learn about land preservation issues and projects, provide input, and get involved in numerous volunteer opportunities, including Project Pollinator. The nationally recognized and accredited Monmouth Conservation Foundation was founded by the Michael Huber and Judith Stanley Coleman.