How Austin Is Welcoming Wildlife

In becoming the nation's largest NWF-certified community habitat, the Texas capital took an important step toward attaining its goals for climate protection and water conservation

08-01-2009 // Andrea Abel

WHEN DALE AND PAT BULLA bought a home a decade ago in west Austin, they realized that the sparse topsoil and rocky terrain in the property required new landscaping tactics. “Dale had a real green thumb, but it was always with traditional gardening practices,” says Pat. The couple dived headfirst into natural techniques that include cultivating low-maintenance plants native to the region. Before long, the Bulla's yard qualified as an NWF Certified Wildlife Habitat™ and they became Habitat Stewards for the organization.

By preaching the gardening-for-wildlife gospel and teaching friends and neighbors how to implement it, the Bullas were among the many driving forces behind the City of Austin's official certification late last year as a Community Wildlife Habitat™. NWF initiated the program in the late 1990s to expand its existing efforts to encourage homeowners and schools to create biodiverse havens for native species. To date, 32 communities across the country have earned the designation and 45 others are working toward achieving it. Austin is the nation's largest city to become certified.

“Two years ago, the city council expressed our intent to have Austin become the first certified Community Wildlife Habitat in Texas,” says former Mayor Will Wynn. “Austinites created hundreds of unique wildlife habitats, not only for flora and fauna to thrive but also to help us deliver on our goals for climate protection, water quality and water conservation.”

The project took root during a meeting on climate change when staff from NWF's South Central Regional Center suggested to the mayor that the city of about 775,000 people become certified. Wynn jumped on the idea. Council Member Lee Leffingwell, who recently succeeded Wynn as mayor, helped shepherd the resolution through the city council, creating a new program called Wildlife Austin.

“The city plunged into a flurry of activities,” says Alice Nance, conservation program coordinator for Wildlife Austin, which issued a community-wide Neighborhood Habitat Challenge—a friendly competition to certify individual residences, remove invasive plants in public areas and get the word out on gardening for wildlife. In collaboration with Austin Parks Foundation and several other groups, Wildlife Austin restored native plants in riparian areas.

“The City of Austin has really gone above and beyond our requirements. Residents really embraced this program,” says Susan Kaderka, NWF regional executive director in Texas.

Today, certified city properties include the Plaza at Austin City Hall and other municipal facilities. Fifteen businesses, 25 school grounds, 14 parks and four places of worship—a Unitarian Church, a Buddhist Meditation Center, a Jewish synagogue and a Baptist church—also became part of the program. In addition, some 900 private Austin residences are now certified. Each utilizes sustainable gardening practices and provides wildlife with food, water, cover and places to raise young.

“Austin's certification as a NWF Community Wildlife Habitat was a first for Texas,” says Nance, “but it will not be the last of the city's efforts to preserve its biodiversity through collaborative initiatives focused on habitat creation, conservation and education.”

Writer Andrea Abel lives in Austin.

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