Urban Nature

Next Frontier for Restoration: Your Backyard

December 16, 2010

Environmental action often hinges on what not to do at home: don’t leave lights on, don’t bring home plastic bags, don’t use pesticides. But what about actively creating a wildlife habitat right outside your backdoor?

San Franciscans will soon have help doing just that: The nonprofit Nature in the City (NITC) is launching a backyard services program to transform individual properties into wildlife-friendly habitats. For five years, the group has promoted stewardship of San Francisco’s natural areas. Now, it’s embracing the private frontier.

Founder and director Peter Brastow says the new program is a logical expansion of his organization’s work, which includes several volunteer-based restoration efforts.

“I think a lot of people just don’t realize how important little spaces are for wildlife. A bird bath and one native fruiting tree can have a big impact.”

One of these takes place in the Sunset District, home to two of the city’s three remaining populations of green hairstreak butterfly. NITC holds monthly workdays to plant native host and nectar sources on small patches of public land, but Brastow would like to see an even more inclusive approach. “As part of that project we’ve always envisioned knocking on doors via our backyard nursery network to give away a free plant,” he says.

The backyard services will encompass much more than one-plant fixes, but Brastow says a range of options will keep the program accessible. “Someone might be interested in an initial assessment,” he explains, “and someone else might want to transform their backyard.”

Brastow hopes the services raise money, but he prioritizes NITC’s ecological mission. “We have a lot of integrity in terms of being a grassroots organization,” he says. “While we’re interested in doing this as a diversification of our revenue stream, we’re primarily interested in spreading the knowledge of transforming people’s backyards.” He adds, “If this encourages people to go out and do it themselves, or call their landscaper and say they want to use native plants, that’s great.”

Ecological gardening is not a new idea, but it has gained popularity in recent years. Here at Bay Nature, we did a very popular special section, Gardening for Wildlife with Native Plants, back in 2003.

The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) has run a “Garden for Wildlife” program since 1973 to encourage backyard habitat creation. David Mizejewski, a naturalist with the NWF, reports “exponential growth” in the number of participating properties. “When I started in July of 2000,” he says, “we had 24,000 certified sites. Now we’ve got 135,000.”

Mizejewski thinks greater environmental awareness has fueled interest in gardening for wildlife. “It’s sort of like the whole green living trend,” he says. “More and more people started thinking about how their personal choices have a bigger impact, and as a result for our part we’re seeing an increase in participation.”

Brooke Langston, director of the Richardson Bay Audubon Center and Sanctuary, agrees. Her Tiburon-based center hosts workshops for the national “Audubon at Home” program, which teaches conservation and habitat creation practices for yards and other personal places. “As water becomes more scarce and people become more eco-conscious,” she says, “private spaces are a natural extension of where to practice an eco-friendly lifestyle.”

Still, Langston believes backyard habitats haven’t fully caught on. “I think a lot of people just don’t realize how important little spaces are for wildlife,” she says. “A one-bird bath and one native fruiting tree can have a big impact for birds.”

“It’s all one big earth. It’s not separated into private and public land.”

Highlighting the effects of private property on wildlife is a common goal for the NWF, the Audubon Society, and Nature in the City. According to Mizejewski, each organization plays a different role in educating the public. “We want to engage as many people as possible and get started down the path of doing this,” he says. “But it’s a challenge for us being a national organization that ultimately has very limited staff when it comes to covering the entire country.”

Mizejewski believes smaller groups like Nature in the City do vital on-the-ground work. “Local, regional groups have an increased capacity to provide specific information and do site consultations,” he says.

That’s good news for NITC, where Brastow says the team is looking forward to “really getting out there and transforming the San Francisco private landscape to be more habitat friendly.” After all, the birds and butterflies don’t know where a public park ends and someone’s yard begins. “It’s all one big earth,” says Brastow. “It’s not separated into private and public land.”

Read more about Nature in the City, the National Wildlife Federation’s Garden for Wildlife Program, or the National Audubon Society’s Audubon at Home program.

About the Author

Erica Reder is a native San Franciscan. In addition to covering the environment beat at SF Public Press, she reports for Bay Nature Magazine and KPFA Radio. She holds a B.A. in history from Yale University. This story was originally published at sfpublicpress.org.