NJ Audubon President Discusses How to Have a Wildlife-Friendly Yard

It took more than two decades but the state’s Water Supply Plan has finally been updated. Politicians, developers and water resource professionals have argued that without it, the state couldn’t plan for development. Or make allowances for drought. Or avoid over-pumping streams that damage the environment. The blueprint traditionally looks at water quality as well as supply to identify what infrastructure needs upgrading. While some expressed relief at getting the update, others are calling the plan “flawed and incomplete.” The public gets to weigh in at three hearings this summer.

New Jersey Audubon is also focusing on the state’s ecosystem and says residents can help preserve it one backyard at a time. Audubon’s President and CEO Eric Stiles sat down with NJTV News Correspondent Brenda Flanagan.

Flanagan: We’re going to be talking about the landscape in New Jersey today, mostly the suburban landscape. You’ve got a vision for it, which is a little different than what I was seeing on my street this past weekend when everyone was manicuring their lawn, getting it as green as possible, as weedless as possible, as fertilized and beautiful as possible. This is the way we grew up. This was the way your yard was supposed to look. But you’ve got a different vision. Talk about that.

Stiles: When I grew up, I grew up playing in areas that had flowers. I grew up playing in areas that had pockets of woods. So actually when I grew up, I grew up with nature. In a suburban community — Linwood, down in Atlantic County. So I’d actually say what we’re promoting is getting away the chemical cocktail lawn is really a byproduct of the last couple of decades. When you show people pictures and say, “Do you want to live in a community that looks like this?” and it has flowers and colors and trees, hands down, “Do you want your retail space to incorporate this?” It’s an easy decision. People overwhelmingly say yes.

Flanagan: So you’re looking for a landscape that’s got natural plantings instead of a traditional lawn. Now I’m thinking the first level of resistance you’re going to meet is from the neighbor who’s going to come over and say, “This is hideous. Mow your grass. Pull your weeds.”

Stiles: Great point. And this is where you need to do it mindfully. So you want to be a good neighbor. So it’s not either all lawn or all wildflowers. It’s having these pockets in your lawn that you take out and you put in these beautiful flowers like purple coneflower that are going to be blooming all summer long throughout the fall. It’s putting in the milkweed that are going to attract monarchs. So when you look at your neighbor’s house, you’re going to see that lawn and it’s going to be kept. You’re also going to see beautiful flowers and you’re going to see hummingbirds and you’re going to see butterflies. This is the type of place that you want to live in the Garden State.

Flanagan: And you’re talking native plants, right?

Stiles: Thank you. Yeah, so the wildlife here has grown up basically to thrive with native plants. So it’s native plants, designing it thoughtfully to make sure you’re still being a good neighbor while providing a good home for the wildlife, for the birds, for the butterflies in New Jersey.

Flanagan: Now there’s the second wall of resistance that I think some people might worry about and that is in some towns — Cherry Hill for example — if your grass gets 10 inches high, the town can come in — they’ll give you a letter first to warn you — but they can come in, mow your lawn and send you the bill and if you don’t pay it, they’ll put a lien on your home. In Glassboro, I think the height limit for lawns is eight inches. So what are you going to do if you’ve got weeds and bushes that go over that and the town comes in to lean on you?

Stiles: So I think you’ve asked the really key question. Landscaping your yard for wildlife doesn’t mean stop mowing. Right? So a town has a right to have aesthetic standards. I don’t want to live next to a home where the person simply walks away, stops mowing and says this is wildlife. It really means designing it. Sitting down and saying what are the areas for turf, for grass? What are the areas that are going to be for beautiful, native grasses and for flowers, having that being maintained, having that being designed. So even in this native section of your yard, I’m still working on them. So this weekend, I mowed the lawn, I planted tomato plants in our vegetable beds and we put in some native plant species into the wildflower beds. So it’s really having that intentional design. It can’t be neglect. You can’t call neglect creating a wildlife habitat.

Flanagan: And there’s also a piece of legislation, if I’m not mistaken, that would actually protect people if they do decide to go au naturel, go wild. It’s bill S1151 and A1069 to create a private wildlife habitat certification program. What’s that?

Stiles: So this is really about protecting neighbors, protecting communities and protecting the landowner. It’s saying that simply walking away from your yard and letting it grow to 12 inches tall isn’t creating a wildlife habitat. It’s creating native species that you’re bringing in. Putting them in the right locations. Making sure that you’re being a good neighbor and you’re designing it in the right way.

Flanagan: But how do you protect people?

Stiles: Through the certification program. Just like if you wanted to put in a well or a septic tank, towns, the state have standards. In the same fashion, that makes sure that someone doesn’t put a septic tank in a wetland or put in a well that drains your well. In a similar fashion, it creates these standards that everyone can agree to, that will be rigorous, that protects everyone’s interests, including that individual that does the right thing from a frivolous lawsuit.

Flanagan: So you register with the town. Basically you say this is my little piece of wild and no one’s going to be able to come after you?

Stiles: I think so through developing these very rigorous standards keeping in mind both wildlife needs and town needs it will be a transparent system.

Flanagan: It’s something that will foster more wildlife in New Jersey?

Stiles: It will.