Changing Landscapes, Shifting Perspectives - Columbia Land Trust
Julie Fukuda with her Backyard Habitat Certificate
Backyard Habitat Certification Program participant and volunteer Julie Fukuda explains how the program's motivational science is transforming Portland neighborhoods.

Two years ago I enrolled in the Backyard Habitat Certification Program. I was curious about the signs I had noticed in front yards all over the city.  After gardening with native plants for over 15 years I decided to make it official and was glad to discover that the technician could grant me silver certification on the first site visit, with simple instructions to eradicate one weed species to qualify for gold.  Since then, I’ve worked at eliminating lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) while continuing to add new native species to different parts of my northeast Portland yard.

I recently became involved as a volunteer in the program, working on a database project for Backyard.  As part of my training, Sam Schongalla and Gaylen Beatty offered me a chance to accompany a Backyard Habitat Technician on a site assessment visit. I eagerly took the first opportunity and joined Gaylen and Gresham/Fairview Habitat Technician Suzi Cloutier at The Oregon Food Bank the following week.

I had gone through my own backyard site visit and certification, and recalled the requirements and menu items for each of five criteria for three levels of certification.  I looked forward to a more objective glimpse into the assessment process — walking through the site and seeing how characteristics are measured and quantified, square footage is tallied, ratings are assigned.

After meeting up with Oregon Food Bank staff members, the first stop was the front entry of the building, the site of a future showcase garden bed that had been cleared and prepared, but in its present state could best be described as a blank slate.  The project leaders for the Oregon Food Bank clearly had an ideal they wanted to see realized for this garden area in a high-visibility location.  The uncertain inflection in their voices showed they needed guidance and direction.  Gaylen immediately had advice and suggested a few species of native shrubs and forbs to attract pollinators and songbirds.  Her enthusiasm was contagious as she shared her vision of developing a meadowscape.  Instead of rattling off a long list of options she stressed that the selection should be limited. For both visual impact and for successful use by pollinators, specimen planting should be avoided; multiples of each plant species should be planted.  I made a note to myself to take this idea home and do an evaluative walk-through of my own yard with this in mind.

The next assessment area was at the back corner of the property, a small piece of Columbia Slough floodplain that abuts the paved parking area.  Native plant species in this area included red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea) and Douglas spiraea (Spireaea douglasii), among others, intermixed with a healthy cover of non-native Himalayan blackberry (Rubus armeniacus).  It was easy to sympathize with the mild vibe of discouragement I sensed from the staff as they surveyed this patch of vegetation.  But Gaylen remained unaffected.  Her cheerful determination assured that a handful of volunteers would make short work of the weedy invasives.  By the time we left this neglected corner of the property, a shift in my perspective allowed me to envision the potential for enhanced habitat on this little piece of land.

I was starting to clue in to the fact that a site assessment is not all about science talk, measurements, and species lists.  Should new participants in Backyard first hear a list of what things they need to fix on their site, an enumeration of all the “bad” species they need to eradicate?  Information is useful, but this can be provided in a written report.  Motivation is the piece that is critical to provide through a personal connection.  This is built through inspiring confidence and forming goals that are achievable.

After circling through the remainder of the property and discussing options for native shrubs and trees to create a hedgerow habitat for songbirds, we went back inside the building to sit down discuss objectives. Not only was Gaylen eager to convey how easy it would be to achieve certification, but she also was quick to point out how many criteria were already met.  “Large tree? You have it! That’s one you can already check off the list.”  Even better, it’s black cottonwood (Populus balsamifera sp. trichocarpa), a native species.

Gaylen’s reassuring words had the effect of replacing confusion and hesitancy with understanding and confidence in the faces and voices of the program enrollees as the conversation included examples of accomplishments of program participants with similar sites and situations. She listed sources of support including contacts at partnering agencies and news of an upcoming native plant sale.

By the end of the morning, I felt as though I had been through a kind of religious conversion.  How could that be?  I already considered myself a member of the order — educated in the natural sciences, an avid gardener and birder, and committed to local conservation efforts and organizations.  Conservation is a science, based on research and analysis of data.  The success of the Backyard Habitat Certification Program relies on the private landowners not only believing in the science, but believing also in their own ability to effect real change and make meaningful contributions.  To date, there are over 2,500 properties enrolled, and the rate of enrollment is increasing. This confirms not only the sound design of the program, but the wisdom of the program managers and trained technicians who can expertly apply motivational science. Wildlife habitat conversion and restoration in our city depends on people feeling good about it.

Editor’s Note: Backyard Habitat Certification is a partnership between Columbia Land Trust and Audubon Society of Portland. To learn more, visit backyardhabitats.org