Habitats Up Close

November 1, 2013, Feature, by Aislinn Maestas

A close-up look at a box turtle is a first for these hesitant but curious kids in Baltimore’s Leakin Park, a 1,200-acre urban wilderness in Baltimore City. Photo: Mary Hardcastle.As one of the largest conservation organizations in the country, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) is known for its work protecting some of the nation’s most iconic wildlife, including the bald eagle, the grizzly bear, the bison and the Florida panther. But that does not mean the organization ignores smaller but still vital species. Through its Certified Wildlife Habitat program, NWF strives to help nature’s less iconic, yet equally important songbirds, butterflies, frogs, bees and bats.

For more than 40 years, the Certified Wildlife Habitat (CWH) program has been teaching novice and expert gardeners alike how to help wildlife by providing the essentials of food, water, cover and places to raise young. As a conservation program, NWF considers it one of the organization’s biggest successes.

“We have certified more than 170,000 yards, balconies, farms, businesses and schools,” says Eliza Russell, NWF’s director of education programs. “Taken individually, these green spaces may not seem like much, but when viewed collectively, you can see that we are creating a network of oases for urban and suburban wildlife that spans the nation.”

What’s more, the people involved with CWH go on to become some of the NWF’s most ardent supporters, making word of mouth one of the main ways people learn about the program. In fact, many individuals were so taken with CWH that they began to voluntarily undertake the task of getting their local communities and neighborhoods involved in gardening for wildlife.

Wanting to recognize the work of these passionate supporters, and to maximize the benefits to wildlife, NWF decided to expand the certification program in 1998 to accommodate communities. Working on a much larger scale, the CWH program engages neighborhoods, towns, cities and even entire counties in the effort to provide spaces for wildlife. To provide safe territories for wildlife throughout the community, habitats are created in individual backyards, on school grounds and in public areas such as parks, community gardens, places of worship and businesses. The goal is to create a place where people, flora and fauna can all flourish together.

To date, 74 communities have achieved certification, and 50 others are on their way. One of these, the City of Baltimore, is shaping up to have the most ambitious undertaking of the program to date.

Partnering for Success

“Baltimore is one of the largest cities in the nation,” says Hilary Falk, regional executive director for NWF. “Because certification goals for each community are individually set based on the population of the community, we were looking at a whole new level of work compared to anything we’ve done in the past.”

In order to receive its CWH certification, Baltimore would need to create wildlife habitats at more than 600 residences, six schools, and 10 parks, businesses or other public spaces. Knowing that it would be nearly impossible to achieve these goals on their own, and also recognizing that many groups were already doing outstanding work to green the city, NWF staff began reaching out to potential partners and asking them to join the Baltimore CWH Advisory Committee earlier this year. One of the first meetings was with the Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks (BCRP), arranged with the help of NRPA.

“We hit it off really well with NWF in that first meeting,” says Fran Spero, BCRP’s division chief for park programming and events. “Our mission at the Department of Recreation and Parks is to get folks out and using our parks, but we also focus on preserving our parks and natural resources. What we heard about the Community Wildlife Habitat project rang true to our ears, so it was an easy decision [to partner].”

What made the partnership particularly appealing to city officials was how it lined up with their own goals and objectives. For example, BCRP is currently the lead agency on TreeBaltimore, an initiative that aims to increase the city’s tree canopy to 40 percent. Tree plantings organized through CWH will directly apply to this to goal. Similarly, the work with schools to create wildlife gardens fits in with The Greater Baltimore Children and Nature Collaborative, an effort to connect Baltimore kids with nature.

Other organizations were quick to sign on as well, including Audubon Maryland-DC, the Baltimore Office of Sustainability, Blue Water Baltimore, the Greater Baltimore Children and Nature Collaborative, the National Aquarium, the Parks and People Foundation and the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council. Like BCRP, many of these organizations found a synergy between their work and the work of NWF.

“As a conservation organization, it is our goal to inspire people to do their part, starting here in our backyard of Baltimore and the Chesapeake Bay,” says John Racanelli, CEO of the National Aquarium. “We are dedicated to a healthy harbor, and we believe that can happen if we all get involved in the greening of our city.”

“Teaming” with Wildlife

The city of Baltimore is famous for its birds — the Orioles and Ravens sports teams are so popular that many have nicknamed the city “Birdland.” But many do not know that the city is also teeming with tons of other wildlife, including red foxes, raccoons, beavers, possums, turtles, owls and deer.

“We have so much wildlife,” says Mary Hardcastle, volunteer coordinator for BCRP. “Step outside and you can see eagles, hawks and a host of amphibians and mammals in our city.”

When completed, the Baltimore Community Wildlife Habitat program will have significantly increased the amount of food, water, shelter and places to raise young for all of the city’s creatures. In addition to these direct conservation gains, the program brings a multitude of other benefits to the city, including beautification, community engagement and improved health for citizens. 

“Gardening for wildlife is a great way to start a discussion about a host of other environmental and health issues,” Falk says. “Through this program, we are able to educate people about eliminating pesticide use, conserving water and increasing native plantings. It also provides a platform for the city to address important challenges like stormwater pollution, pollinator decline and invasive species.”

Groups involved in the project have started planning and conducting a range of community engagement workshops, cleanups and activities within the city. Audubon Maryland-DC has organized a Youth Bird Watching event for 6th- through 12th-grade students, and other events are planned to teach residents the fundamentals of wildlife gardening. There is also a Facebook page to engage the online community.

“This project starts and ends with the people of Baltimore,” Falk says. “With the help of our partners, we are confident that Baltimore will be one of our most successful Certified Community Habitats to date.”

Aislinn Maestas is a Senior Communications Manager for the National Wildlife Federation.