Schoolyard Habitat

Nevada Wildlife Federation members are actively starting to promote the National Wildlife Federation’s Schoolyard Wildlife Habitat Program in the Las Vegas Valley. Federation members Kevin Cabble, Laura Tryboski, and Susan Selby are in the planning stages with folks from Wasden Elementary School. In addition, Chris Tomlinson from the Nevada Department of Wildlife is already searching out plant material for a habitat at Palo Verde High School.

The Federation started the Backyard Habitat Program in the 1970’s because urban development was rapidly gobbling up natural habitat across the country. In the concrete canyons of our cities, even small parcels of habitat would be better than none, when it came to helping maintain species. Just as important was the need to educate people — particularly children — about wildlife and habitat, and the Schoolyard Habitat Program followed soon after the Backyard Habitat Program.

Both programs are similar in the overall process of creating a habitat, and both culminate in a habitat acquiring certification by the Federation as a Backyard Wildlife Habitat or a Schoolyard Wildlife Habitat. There are over 20,000 yards certified in the Wildlife Habitat program, 600 of which are schools.

The Federation just recently dedicated for 1998 a full-time staff person — Susan Crisfield, based in Portland — to work on promoting the Habitat Program in the west, and the Nevada Wildlife Federation is gratefully utilizing her services. It is very much hoped that her position will continue.

What is Certification?

The certification process is easy; it just requires filling out an application. It’s the creation of the habitat that takes the time. Certification as a Backyard Habitat means that a site has to have water, food, shelter and places for critters to raise their young. Certification as a Schoolyard Habitat involves a couple of more requirements in order to foster the Federation’s education goals: Demonstration that creation of the habitat was a team-effort, and incorporation of the habitat into the school’s curriculum.

How to Become Certified?

Backyard habitat does not only mean people’s back yards. It means just about any site suitable for wildlife, including commercial and public property.

If you already have a back yard or a school yard that you think might be eligible for certification, view our application. Or if you are thinking about creating a habitat and need some help on how to go about doing it, also contact NVWF at The Federation has had plenty of experience and thus has plenty of educational materials; it can also get you in touch with local experts — like the Master Gardeners Program through Cooperative Extension — or people who are already going through the process — like the Wasden Elementary School effort in Las Vegas.

Why be Certified?

There are a number of reasons, which is why the program is so successful. The process of becoming certified — and contacting the Federation to let staff know you want to do so — gives you access to local wildlife experts and whatever other expertise those particular people have. It gives you access to expertise across the country. The Federation also has a great deal of printed educational material that’ll help you go through the process.

A certified habitat can give you the opportunity of becoming part of a much bigger picture, like a nation-wide effort to extend song bird ranges. The goal of certification gives you some guidance on creating your habitat — water, food, etc. And probably most importantly, the process of becoming certified — particularly if it is any kind of group effort — is an invaluable learning process. Working with others on a community project, especially with schools and kids, is very, very satisfying.

Wasden Elementary School

Wasden is one of the oldest schools in the Las Vegas Valley, probably built in the 1960’s from the looks of it, which is old for Vegas. Its landscape is the traditional turf and sidewalk motif — functional for soccer and getting kids from one building to the next, but not much else.

Wasden’s principal Diane Reitz and the Las Vegas Valley Water District’s Desert Demonstration Gardens supervisor Pete Duncombe — winner of the 1998 NvWF Water Conservationist of the Year Award — had been discussing the possibility of redoing the landscape, to make it more usable by students and more beautiful. Along came Susan Crisfield. She talked to Pete, Pete talked to Diane, Susan talked to Susan Selby who was looking for a likely school to start the program in Las Vegas, and voila! A habitat process was sprouted.

The Wasden effort is going to be a big one. People are so excited, they are going to master plan the entire school yard, which is a monster — it looks like it takes up an entire city block. Right now they are in the brainstorming, wish list phase and are thinking of things anywhere from building a simple stormwater pond to modifying the street in the front of the school to create safer crosswalks. But their real emphasis is outdoor science labs or wildlife habitats, where kids can learn about and experience natural habitat. They will probably pick a first project, like a Hummingbird Garden or Desert Tortoise Preserve, to get something done that the kids can use right away and that can be installed relatively quickly and inexpensively.

Fortunately the Wasden effort is a team effort. The Planning Work Group is made up of representatives from the school — not only teachers but the principal and vice-principal — and the grounds supervisor from the Clark County School District, who is key because his people will have to maintain the sites, once installed. An added plus is his landscape architecture background. There is a member from the Wasden Beautification Committee, the PTA president and other PTA members. The NWF folks bring a mix of wildlife knowledge, landscape architecture, land use and resource planning, and media experience. In addition, the Conservation District has expressed an interest to help in funding. What a dynamite group!

Besides an enthusiastic team, Wasden already has an emphasis on math and science, with a strong science curriculum for all grades. Incorporating wildlife habitats into the existing school program will be a snap.

Planning Process

In a nutshell, the Wasden folks will follow a pretty typical site planning process — put together your planning team, figure out what you want, design it, figure out how much it costs, find the resources, build it. And then use it! These are of course very general steps, and another school may go through a slightly different more detailed process. By the end of September, Wasden’s Planning Work Group will have only met a couple of times, but they have already brainstormed a wish list of all the things they want to do to the school yard. They are also finalizing a mission statement, in order to make sure they are consistent with the school’s mission and to give them some kind of criteria when it comes to picking projects. They are whittling their wish list down to reality and then refining it. They are splitting the list into needs (habitats that kids can learn from, shade, places to sit, etc.) versus specific projects to meet the needs (hummingbird garden, council ring, etc.)

Issues So Far

Many folks wanted a desert tortoise preserve, particularly the science teachers. They are rethinking that desire, though, now that they are realizing the price tag that could be associated with maintaining a threatened/endangered species year round at a non-year round school and the facilities that would be needed to keep the tortoises safe (six-foot chainlink fence, etc.). They definitely haven’t given up the thought, until they find out more about it, and a couple of folks are going to visit other schools in the Valley to see the successful ones and the not so successful ones.

Some of the team members are concerned that the children are not being brought into the planning process. Others realize, however, that there will be plenty of opportunity for kids to be involved in the research, design and construction of specific habitats, once the adults decide which projects are reasonable, meet school goals, and are affordable. Hopefully this concern will be allayed in the next couple of meetings, once we actually show the group a draft schedule or timeline of the whole process, and emphasize all the places that kids can fit in. The group will of course redefine and revise that timeline, as it gets more into the process. Wasden is an elementary school; however, at a high school or even a junior high, it would probably be a very worthwhile exercise to have students brouught into that very first planning step.

Help Needed

If you have construction, landscape, or funding-raising skills, we want you! If you are interested in helping schools start up these processes, we want you! If you are interested in helping create a professional quality video to help show other schools how to go about doing this, we want you! For more information email: