Today the program, co-managed by Portland Audubon and Columbia Land Trust, has expanded to reach all four counties in the metro area, where more than 1,464 acres are undergoing restoration. Combined, that’s seven times larger than Mt. Tabor Park.
The Backyard Habitat Certification Program has not only had a measurable impact on the urban and suburban landscape, but it has also had a tremendous impact on people. The program has brought neighbors together, sparked curiosity about the natural world, connected people to the land in a new way, and created a strong community of people who are committed to creating a healthier ecosystem.
Whether people are planting native trees and shrubs, pulling noxious weeds, hacking ivy, removing lawn, cutting out pesticides, reducing wildlife hazards, or rethinking their stormwater management, participants are discovering a multitude of ways to restore our shared landscape.
And it all began with one yard.
By the Numbers
75,000+ native trees and shrubs planted
11,500+ hours volunteered
6,000+ yards enrolled
1,464+ acres undergoing restoration
Planting the Seed: How the Program Started
What would it look like if habitat restoration extended beyond natural areas and into people’s backyards? How can we work to quell the growth of invasive weeds? How do we create habitat connectivity throughout the city?
These were just a few questions that were percolating when the West Willamette Restoration Partnership, a coalition of neighborhoods, and the now-defunct Three Rivers Land Conservancy dreamed up the Backyard Habitat Program in 2006. Their initial pilot project focused on a small, ivy-ridden area in the West Hills with a modest goal of certifying 25 yards in the first three years. The program was such a success that Three Rivers approached Portland Audubon in 2009 to partner with them in taking the program citywide.
“At the time we were looking for a way to really engage people in restoration and wildlife stewardship at the yard and neighborhood scale, and this program seemed like the perfect fit,” says Conservation Director Bob Sallinger. “Nearly 40% of the urban landscape is private property: people’s backyards. And if we wanted to complete our vision of a healthy urban landscape for people and wildlife, somehow we had to address that challenge.”
Portland Audubon’s Wildlife Care Center Urban Wildlife Specialist Karen Munday was given the task of building out and co-managing the program alongside Three Rivers’ Gaylen Beatty. When Three Rivers was absorbed by the Columbia Land Trust in 2011, they took over that half of the partnership.
The goal from the start was to create a program that would keep people engaged over the long term. “We wanted a program that went beyond typical yard certification programs where you pay some money and get a sign,” says Bob. “We wanted a program that would really create meaningful change on the landscape and keep people engaged over the long term.”
In collaboration with biologists, conservation groups, natural resource agencies, and other partners, Karen and Gaylen worked to create an impactful framework that focused on creating habitat, removing invasive weeds, promoting sustainable, green stormwater strategies, and stewarding wildlife, but also built community and engaged participants in local conservation issues. On the day the program launched in 2009, it already had a waiting list of over 100 people!
Ten years later the Backyard Habitat Certification Program is thriving, due in large part to the philosophy and structures developed in the very early stages of the program. The three-tiered certification approach allows people who are just starting to restore their yards to jump right in and move at their own pace through increasingly sophisticated levels of participation.
Enrollment is a flat fee of $35, and it comes with the unique benefit of having a trained technician come to your home to provide guidance as you build your plan for restoration. Participants also get exclusive discounts to local nurseries, gardening resources, and other support services.
“Renters, homeowners, schools, religious institutions, businesses, retirement communities —there’s a place for everyone,” says Columbia Land Trust Backyard Program Co-Manager Susie Peterson. “You don’t have to know anything about gardening when you sign up, and your garden doesn’t have to be in any kind of shape. We’re here to offer support and resources so that you can get started on whatever habitat projects you’re interested in.”
Partnerships are also critical to the success of the program.
“We certainly couldn’t do this work on our own. We work with more than 70 funding partners, non-profits, businesses, and municipalities as well as nearly 100 volunteers who make this program successful,” says Susie.
2019 was a year of growth and change for Backyard Habitat. They reached a major milestone, completing the program’s expansion to include Multnomah, Clark, Clackamas, and Washington Counties, and also experienced a leadership change when Nikkie West, Portland Audubon’s program co-manager for 8 years, moved on to spend more time with her young daughter and start her own business. Megan Van de Mark came on board as the new co-manager in early autumn from Friends of Trees and has hit the ground running.
Now that the program has finished expanding geographically, Backyard Habitat is looking to cultivate meaningful ways to bring in more people and grow into new communities.
“We are looking forward to deepening the relationships that we have with frontline communities,” says Backyard Habitat Coordinator JP Marchetti-Mendez. “We are brainstorming how we can strengthen the program and make it even more relevant for more folks, such as incorporating food production, climate resiliency strategies, and beyond.”
Stories of Backyard Habitat Builders
Sparking Passion, Creating Habitat Connectivity
Robin Jensen, who has been involved with Backyard Habitat every step of the way since 2006, has been astonished to see its growth.
“The way that it has exploded is amazing. And the fact that there’s been continuous momentum and we’ve been able to reach surrounding counties,” said Robin.
Robin’s roots in the Backyard Habitat program run deep. Not only did she design the ubiquitous certification sign and logo, but her platinum yard in SW Portland was one of the first to get certified. She was also hired as one of the first Backyard Habitat technicians and has visited more than 770 yards, helping others on their path to certification.
She is a passionate advocate for the program and an integral part of the community.
“I really believe in what we’re doing,” she said. “Having watched the bird population in my yard over the last 27 years, I know that the number of birds has increased threefold.”
“When I do site visits, half the folks are interested in low maintenance, but the other half wants to improve wildlife habitat,” said Robin. “They’re seeing reports about 30% of birds disappearing, and they’re concerned about wildlife habitat. They’re seeing, as cities grow, the decline of natural areas and the importance of connectivity.”
Beyond the Backyard
When Andrine de la Rocha and Howard Patterson moved into their craftsman in the Boise Eliot neighborhood in 2014, they saw an opportunity for something big in the small vacant plot across the street. Owned by PBOT, the lot was unable to be developed because of utility placement and had become a dumping ground for trash and old furniture. With the help of the community and permission from PBOT, the Boise Eliot Native Grove got its start.
“The goal was to have people use this garden as a resource to learn more about native plants and be inspired to bring them back to their own yards,” says Andrine. “Because this is a space that can’t be developed, we wanted to make it into a special place.”
They enlisted the help of the Backyard Habitat Certification Program, other nonprofits, the neighborhood association, local businesses, government agencies, and elementary school students to envision what a shared native garden would look like.
“The students at Boise Eliot drew up sketches of what they wanted the space to have, like robots, slides, and more,” Howard laughed. “We did our best to integrate as many of their design ideas as we could.”
Now the grove is a thriving pollinator pocket park with a lush array of native trees and shrubs, interpretive signage, an accessible walkway, nature-inspired sculptures, a collaborative bench project, and a “Let Bees Inn” bee hotel.
A Native Oak Savanna in the City
Like many people when they first enroll in the Backyard Habitat program, Tricia McMackin didn’t know much about plants when she started restoration on her oversized yard in Milwaukie. But as she began reimaging her low-maintenance, inviting backyard, she was intrigued by the idea of planting native plants.
Her yard is now a platinum-certified oak savanna demonstration site (a dwindling and important habitat in the Willamette Valley), and she is a newly minted Backyard Habitat technician. For Tricia, landscaping with native plants was important but equally important was her ability to grow her own food, so she cultivated a flourishing vegetable garden and keeps chickens.
“There are a lot of benefits to having natives with the vegetable garden because we’re creating an ecosystem. The more you add natives, the more beneficial to your garden,” says Tricia. “It’s all connected. It’s connected to our food, our health, our well-being, our community. We’re not the only ones on this planet, and it’s learning to cohabitate with all species. Making room in our gardens and realizing that they need to do more.”