How Columbia Land Trust and Bird Alliance of Oregon are diversifying their backyard habitat program

The program is seen as "important ecologically for creating wildlife corridors through urban and suburban areas, as well as for engaging the public in conservation efforts."

By Tripti Thomas-Travers March 12

(This is an excerpt from a Village & Wilderness case study entitled “Diversifying Participation in Backyard Habitat Programs Through Community Partners.” You can read the full piece here.)

What is the Backyard Habitat Certification Program?

The Backyard Habitat Certification Program is a microhabitat program based in the Portland-Vancouver metro area, spanning the states of Oregon and Washington. The program focuses on private sites smaller than one acre and community sites of any size in both urban and suburban settings and currently includes more than 12,000 backyard habitats and growing, with technicians conducting some 1,400 site visits a year.

Launched in 2006 , the program finds its roots in the work of the now-closed Three Rivers Land Conservancy, which aimed to conserve private natural land in the watershed areas of the Clackamas, Tualatin and lower Willamette rivers in Portland, Ore. Facing pressure on conservation land from invasive ivy and Himalayan blackberry, the conservancy and West Willamette Restoration Partners created and launched a program to encourage better stewardship and ecological practices among abutting property owners. Those efforts were successful enough that the City of Portland took notice and requested the program expand city-wide, which it did in 2009. Since then the program has been managed jointly by the accredited Columbia Land Trust and Bird Alliance of Oregon (formerly Portland Audubon).

“Both organizations see the program as very important ecologically for creating wildlife corridors through urban and suburban areas, as well as for engaging the public in conservation efforts,” said Susie Peterson, the Backyard Habitat Certification Program manager for Columbia Land Trust (a responsibility she shares with her counterpart at Bird Alliance of Oregon, Katherine Noble).

Today, the Backyard Habitat Certification Program is also working to create a more inclusive program and to diversify participation, looking to expand both its ecological and social impact and benefits.

How is the Backyard Habitat Certification Program working to diversify participation?

Portland is the most populous city in Oregon, with about half the state’s population residing within the Portland metropolitan area. Since the enactment of the Urban Growth Boundary in 1970 to protect surrounding natural spaces and farmland, the city’s population has expanded by 60% while the land area has grown by just 14%. Skyrocketing rents and housing prices, low stock of affordable housing and displacement of low-income city dwellers — often people of color — are all major issues. Given the nature of the Backyard Habitat Certification Program, which requires design, modification and planting of yards, along with ongoing maintenance to achieve tiered levels of certification, participants have historically been homeowners largely of single-family homes. These homeowners have historically been mostly affluent, middle-aged to elderly and Caucasian, located within the expensive urban growth boundary.

To increase access for people who do not own their backyards, the program has looked to forge relationships with community organizations and shared community sites. The Backyard Habitat Certification Program defines community sites as shared sites where multiple residents can participate. Examples include community gardens, churchyards, schoolyards, apartment complexes and other gathering places, and the program now includes more than 400 such sites.

“We recognize that one of the primary barriers in our program is that you have to be privileged enough to own a home and therefore have a yard to garden,” said Peterson. “This is a big reason why we have a focus on community sites so that folks who do not have their yard to garden can still have access to native plants, get their hands in the soil, and reap the health and ecological benefits of gardening.”

Another strategy has been to partner with mission and culturally specific community organizations in the area. The Backyard Habitat Certification Program’s experience with community partnerships began with the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO), a relationship that grew out of connections formed between staff at diversity, equity and inclusion trainings. To launch their joint efforts, the two organizations first hosted a series of community conversations to learn about the priorities of the community. This led to projects such as planting native plants at APANO’s community center and at a nearby community school. Additional partners include Verde, an organization that works with communities of color in the Portland area and is highly respected for its community-based environmental work, and Centro Cultural of Washington County, the oldest culturally-specific Latino organization in Oregon, which undertakes several community efforts from providing housing and food, to English language training for job seekers.

“Through investing in mutually beneficial partnerships with community organizations, our program can reach more diverse communities while supporting the priority initiatives of our partners,” said Katherine Noble of Bird Alliance of Oregon, who serves as the Backyard Habitat Certification Program co-manager. “There is so much great work already happening on the ground and engaging in partnerships allows for sharing of expertise and pooling of resources.”

By building these partnerships, organizations such as BHCP are contributing to important conversations around how land trust properties and environmental programming become more accessible to diverse communities.

“There’s a growing awareness around the harm that humans have caused to the earth,” said Peterson. “But there is also a growing sense of empowerment in realizing there are many things we can do. We are tapping into that and trying to do it in ways where we are not just reaching the same people — culturally and demographically — over and over again, but instead in ways where everyone can relate and get involved. That is what excites me, although we have a long way to go and a lot to learn.”

Further reading:

Could You Transform Your Yard into a Flourishing Wildlife Haven? (Reasons to be Cheerful Blog)

Read the full case study for more details about each community partnership and some replicable strategies and lessons learned.

This case study is part of a series of written resource materials that Village and Wilderness is developing to share lessons and best practices across existing and emerging microhabitat programs.

Village and Wilderness amplifies the work of community-based innovators by supporting efforts to discover, prove and share replicable climate adaption strategies. Their flagship project is the Microhabitat Program Incubator.

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