Making wildlife a priority

Islander spearheads community effort to protect habitat

The Chautauqua Elementary School Green Team will host an Earth Day event on Friday. The team made packets of pollinator seeds for every student at the school (Courtesy Photo).

The Chautauqua Elementary School Green Team will host an Earth Day event on Friday. The team made packets of pollinator seeds for every student at the school (Courtesy Photo).

Islander Julia Lakey is on a mission: to certify the island as a wildlife habitat community, enhancing the environment for the island’s pollinators and addressing climate change along the way.

Lakey, a former teacher, professional gardener, and community and environmental activist, is working through the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), which certifies communities as well as public and private gardens as wildlife habitats. Businesses, schools, community organizations and homeowners can take part, using a checklist on the NWF’s website. The process is simple, Lakey said, noting that when she began this process last fall, a few dozen islanders had already been certified, including Windermere and The Land Trust. That number has climbed to approximately 100, and she is working to get at least 60 more to certify as well. To become certified, islanders would create, preserve or enhance wildlife habitat on their property, with the goal, according to the NWF, of replenishing resources for wildlife locally and along migratory corridors. The process is simple, Lakey said. Properties to be certified need to have one element from five categories on NWF’s checklist: food sources, water sources, cover for wildlife and places to raise young along with sustainable gardening practices, such as planting native species and forgoing pesticide use.

The official kickoff for the effort will take place Friday morning at Chautauqua Elementary School, at an Earth Day event that will include information about the project and seed packets for pollinator gardens for all 600 students, among other activities.

Lakey has certified the property where she lives, even though her home might not first appear like prime wildlife habitat. Her condominium near town has a large driveway, a carport and tiny backyard, she said, but she had no problem meeting NWF’s criteria.

“What I like is that the bar is not set very high. They are not stringent standards,” she said. “It means we can look at that list and say, ‘What can I do more of to help wildlife?’”

At the condo, plants with berries provide food, she said; a retention pond provides water; rocks in a birdbath will create a butterfly puddling station, and an evergreen offers cover. The carport and sheds offer nesting space; a drip irrigation system is water wise; every inch is mulched, and there is no lawn. Pesticides and chemical fertilizers are not used, and residents make their own compost. If an “exotic” plant starts to fade, it is replaced with a native species.

Lakey plans to add birdhouses after researching what would best suit island birds, and a bat house to encourage their presence as well.

“I am not an expert,” she said. “I am just a community member that is committed to the restoration of our island for the original residents, who are our pollinators and our birds.”

Lakey is working with the Vashon Maury Island Garden Club as the sponsoring agency of her efforts. She is a longtime member, she said, noting that the club’s mission — promoting fun and interest in gardening and providing education on environmentally sound gardening practices and the preservation of native plants and wildlife — fits in well with the NWF wildlife program.

Lakey has also put together a planning team for how to accomplish her island certification goal. Most are members of the garden club, she said, but the team also includes former Vashon High School science teacher Tom Devries and the Land Trust’s Erika Carleton.

Lakey intends for community education about the environment to be part of this project beyond receiving certification as a community wildlife habitat.

“We all need to raise the bar about getting more education about our pollinators and our native plants,” she said. “Every year we are going to know more.”

In part, Lakey has undertaken this work as a tribute to her late husband, Steve Self. A lifelong islander, he died at age 69 last year, after having had two fatal illnesses connected to industrial toxins: Parkinson’s disease and multiple myeloma. He grew up under the Asarco plume, Lakey said, and went on to become a house painter, where he was exposed to toxins in his work.

In addition to that personal interest and wanting to restore the island’s environment, Lakey said the project is a concrete way the community, including youth, can address climate change.

She cited Audubon statistics related to climate change. Birds are climate messengers, and as the Earth warms, species that now live up to 500 miles south of here will be migrating north, she said. Additionally, out of the nearly 600 species of birds studied in North America, 314 species are threatened by climate change, with their habitat shrinking by up to 50 percent within the next 60 years.

Insects face a similar situation. Numerous studies have pointed to their dwindling numbers, with one recent study showing that 40 percent of insect species may face extinction within the next few decades, with butterflies, bees and dung beetles affected the most.

Lakey encourages action in the face of the discouraging news. Washington’s climate is likely to be relatively stable, she noted, and conservation practices will be important to the species at risk.

“The natural world is capable of regeneration and needs our assistance,” she said.

For some of that assistance, Lakey has turned to Chautauqua students, fourth- and fifth-graders who are members of the Green Team, a club dedicated to the environment.

Lakey wanted to involve students from the outset, calling youth “the most powerful messengers” and vital to how and when adults change their habits.

“I don’t want anyone to despair, and this (project) takes us from despair to action,” she added.

Islander Amy Bogaard leads the Green Team and with the 25 students is hosting Friday’s Earth Day event. In the Chautauqua woods, the team will set up three information stations, and each class will spend about 30 minutes walking in the woods and stop by the three stations — one about compost and keeping food out of the waste stream, another about limiting single-use plastics and the final station on creating wildlife habitat. Members of the club are working on a related video — why creating wildlife habitat is important and how to do it, Bogaard said. She credited one student with succinctly summarizing the situation.

“If insects go extinct, then birds may go extinct. If birds go extinct, then people may go extinct,” she said, quoting the student.

This is where Lakey believes islanders can make a difference — tending to their property with attention to the needs of wildlife — then looking ahead beyond that.

“Our goal is not just to get certified and then coast,” she stated. “We as a community will do more project enhancements after that.”

Two goals for the future, she said, are to have demonstration gardens with native plants and pollinator gardens from seed gathered on Vashon.

“We want to grow it here, and harvest it here, and put it back out here,” she said.

While Vashon and Maury islands, lush and green much of the year, might seem like a “green” haven, there are environmental challenges here, compared to urban areas, Lakey said. Many people drive their cars considerable distances to town, instead of walk, and maintain big, water-consuming lawns tended with fossil-fuel guzzling equipment. Lakey, counting on islanders to join her in her recent effort, is looking to change that, one wildlife habitat at a time.

“We have to come up with solutions in our landscape that work for the climate change that is upon us,” she said.

Learn more

To learn more or certify your property, see nwf.org/Garden-for-Wildlife/Certify. The cost is $20. If the cost presents a hardship for interested people, they should call Lakey at 206-463-4623 for scholarship assistance.

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