Every spring, for the past 20 years, a family of foxes has made its home in Mary Burnette's backyard.
"They use our forsythia as a den, and they bring the kits out in the morning for sun baths," said Burnette, a Senior Communications manager for the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). "That's kind of how I know spring has arrived."
Burnette, who has lived in Great Falls for 25 years, has a property that is an NWF certified Backyard Habitat. Essentially, this means that Burnette's backyard supplies local wildlife with food, water, shelter and places for them to raise their young.
Last week, Burnette attended the Great Falls Citizens Association (GFCA) meeting and gave a presentation explaining how Great Falls can become a member of the NWF Community Wildlife Habitat program. The Community Wildlife Habitat program is a certification project that is a part of the NWF Backyard Wildlife Habitat program. The program was started 30 years ago to encourage people to maintain their property in such a way that is conducive to wildlife. NWF employees call the program "gardening for wildlife," and Burnette said that its purpose is to "hopefully compensate in some small way for the damage that is being done, not only in Great Falls, but all over Virginia."
"About six or seven years ago we started receiving a lot of interest from citizens who wanted to certify their whole community," said Burnette.
The NWF came up with some requirements for community certification, and there are now about 12 communities that are certified in the United States. Reston is one of them. To qualify for the Community Wildlife Habitat program, a certain percentage of homes must meet the requirements of the Backyard Wildlife Habitat program.
"There are four major criteria, and they are really the same four for wildlife, as they are for human beings," said Burnette. "They are food, water, cover and places to raise their young."
Food can be provided in the form of nuts, fruits, seeds, berries, nectar, sap, foliage and twigs. It can also be provided in supplemental feeders.
"We say supplemental because we don't want just bird feeders," said Burnette.
Water can be provided in the form of bird baths, ponds, streams and lakes. Cover is considered to be wooded areas and dense shrubs — such as Burnette's forsythia — and places to raise young can range from trees with cavities, to nesting boxes, to host plants for caterpillars. A fifth criteria for the Backyard Wildlife Habitat program is recommended, but not required.
"It's really not official, but the use of native plants is good because they are more useful to wildlife," said Burnette. "They are already adapted for local soils and climate and they need little upkeep once established... we ask that you avoid exotic plants."
IN ADDITION to establishing a certain percentage of homes as Backyard Wildlife Habitats, there are other things that a community must do to become a certified Community Wildlife Habitat. All of the other requirements credit the community with a certain amount of points, and once the community has accumulated enough points, it can be certified.
"Getting Backyard Habitat certification is critical, and it's based on population," said Burnette.
Based on her estimation, Burnette said that with a population of 15,000, Great Falls will need 375-400 points for certification. At least 100 of those points must come from Backyard Wildlife Habitat certification.
"I'm thinking we can do a lot better than that," said Burnette.
According to her, the challenge with Great Falls is that many of its residents use landscaping companies to handle their property.
"We need to get homeowners to work with them," she said.
Another way to accumulate points is through education.
"One of the things that we want the community to do is to try and educate people about the importance of having habitat that is conducive to wildlife," said Burnette.
Education points can be earned by holding native plant sales, gardening workshops and Habitat Steward training seminars. Community points can also be earned by creating an educational Web site, holding a stream or trail clean-up, and by having a frog-watch for kids.
"We did a stream cleanup, we held a native plant sale, so it seems that we are already doing a lot of things that qualify," said GFCA member Robin Rentsch.
Rentsch and fellow GFCA member Jackie Taylor are co-chairs of the Community Habitat Program effort. The Great Falls Library, The Village Green Day School and Great Falls Elementary School are already certified as NWF Backyard Habitats.
"As a community we are already launched... but the point is not to cram all these points in so we can be certified," said Stella Koch, chair of the GFCA Environment committee. "It's a nice process to enjoy, and it's a great project for the community. Let's not go for the 375 points — let's go for a community that has a lot of people interested in the program. We'd like it to be an ongoing thing for Great Falls."