Claim to fame
Image: Daniel Root

CLAIM TO FAME – Three Rivers program coordinator Gaylen Beatty and one of the signs that she bestows on homeowners whose yards are biologically diverse.

Headed up by the Lake Oswego-based nonprofit Three Rivers Land Conservancy, the project aims to entice residents who live in ?a 300-acre swath of the West Willamette Corridor—that hilly stretch of land that runs between Forest Park and Tryon Creek State Park—to restore Oregon’s native flora on their own property. Native plants aren’t important simply because they “belong here” or because they don’t require fertilizer the way lawns do, as Douglas W. Tallamy argues in his book Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens. They also play a vital role in the healthy functioning of a region’s ecosystem for one easy-to-grasp reason: Most native insects will not eat nonnative plants. To an insect, a backyard enshrouded in English ivy (which so many yards in the West Willamette Corridor are) is a hostile landscape, a place devoid of food. Take away the native insects, and you take away a protein-packed source of food for native birds. In other words, without a diversity of native plants, you lose a diversity of native insects, and the ecosystem itself begins to collapse.

When Kelly embarked on her backyard mission, she wasn’t necessarily thinking about her yard’s role in the bigger ecological scheme of things—and the Backyard Habitat Certification Program didn’t even exist. But it turns out that all of her work was precisely the type that the program’s coordinator, Gaylen Beatty, wants more homeowners to undertake. Kelly already had removed the most aggressive nonnative weeds from her land (including English ivy, garlic mustard, and Himalayan blackberry), and had planted at least 75 percent of her property with native plants. She also had five of six plant and tree “canopy levels,” or varying plant heights, represented—which helps provide habitat for a larger number of species. Predatory birds such as hawks can perch in the branches of tall trees to hunt prey below; songbirds can forage in the fruit-bearing shorter trees, whose branches help shelter them from predators; and ground cover like clover and low-growing shrubs provides habitat for insects, centipedes, and other critters. (“A real piece of forest doesn’t just include Doug firs and oxalis ground cover—it has layers and layers of vegetation,” Beatty notes.)

The result is a yard that doesn’t look ‘pretty for pretty’s sake.’ Instead, it is a kind of working eco-system in miniature.

“My neighbor Courtie just has gold status,” says Kelly, smiling. “I never let her forget that.” Not that Courtie needs another reminder that she still needs to plant about 25 percent more of her property with native plants to reach the top tier: Signs are posted at the very edge of the neighbors’ properties, near Marquam Trail. Both read, “West Willamette Restoration: Releasing Nature.” But each is emblazoned with a sticker of a different color.

Neighborly competition aside, the signs have Marquam Trail hikers stopping to have a look. “Some people probably think, Oh, some tree hugger must live there,” Kelly says, chuckling. “But others are really admiring and say, ‘I love what you’re doing.’ Now, if I could only get this neighbor on board,” she adds, pointing to a house on the left where the yard is still covered in ivy. “But he just thinks I’m nuts.”

In 2001, Three Rivers Land Conservancy acquired 40 acres of forest just north of the Chart House Restaurant on SW Terwilliger Boulevard with the intention of adding to its inventory of 26 natural spaces in Portland. Priority No. 1 for this parcel, says Three Rivers executive director Jayne Cronlund, was to pull all the ivy from the property, much of which was encroaching onto the parkland from the yards of neighboring residents.

“We knew we had to involve local homeowners,” says Cronlund. “But we had to give them some incentive. I couldn’t just knock on people’s doors and say, ‘Hey, get rid of your ivy!’”

Inspired by a backyard habitat program she’d heard about in Atlanta and another, less successful one conducted by the National Wildlife Federation (some of its signs can now be seen around Portland, covered in ivy), Cronlund decided to develop a similar project. With the cooperation of various neighborhood and parks associations (including the Friends of Marquam Nature Park, where Kelly served on the board of directors) and money from the city and private donors, the collaboration became the West Willamette Restoration Partnership, which launched the Backyard Habitat Certification Program in 2007, with Three Rivers at the helm.

The task of actully conferring the platinum, gold, or silver staus on homeowners in the area falls to Gaylen Beatty. When a home-owner who hears about the program in, say, a neighborhood association meeting, calls her up, Beatty dutifully arrives at their home with a boxful of information about good gardening practices.

She then tours the homeowner’s yard, identifies invasive plants, and helps determine which tier is most feasible. (It often takes years to establish multiple canopies, but other rewards can be more immediate: The silver level, for example, only requires homeowners to eradicate aggressive weeds from their property.)

“There really is an element of desperation that comes with having your yard overrun with invasives,” says Beatty, who sometimes arranges free consultations with landscape designers adept at “naturescaping,” or landscaping with native plants. “I am here to tell homeowners, ‘You are not alone in this,’” she says.