By Helyn Trickey
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- When Val Schroeder realized the ducks and loons that once flocked near her home on Camano Island, Washington, were disappearing, she knew she had to act.
"I used to see a whole bay filled with Goldeneye, White-winged Scoter, Western Grebe, Horned Grebe, Red-throated Loons, Common Loons. I used to see oodles of ducks. ... But now I see less than 20," she said.
Schroeder saw how development was encroaching on the plant life and animal habitats of her beloved island just 50 miles north of Seattle.
She and several friends started the Camano Wildlife Habitat Project in 2002, working closely with the National Wildlife Federation to certify community green areas as wildlife habitats.
Their vision was to create an entire island in harmony with nature. They soon found that transforming their own backyards from manicured lawns and patios to naturally wild and abundant habitats was a major step toward success.
Schroeder ripped up her grassy lawn because, even though it looked beautiful, it provided no shelter or food for animals. Then she looked for indigenous plants that would thrive in her yard with little maintenance.
"Living on an island, water conservation is a big issue," she says. "So I looked for plants that are drought tolerant and can handle the weather."
She added bird feeders and baths to provide needed food and water to native bird species.
"When you can't get people to buy huge tracts of land [for preservation as natural habitat], but you can get them to do something with their backyards, that's a lot of backyards to link up," Schroeder said.
The crew on Camano Island is part of a growing national trend of people who are trading in their neatly trimmed lawns and manicured bushes for wild, natural yards teeming with indigenous critters and plant life, according to Roxanne Paul, the NWF's operations coordinator for habitat education programs,.
The NWF has certified 77,000 natural wildlife habitats across the globe, a number that has nearly doubled in the last three years, Paul said.
Certification through NWF requires that property owners take certain steps:
Gardeners also must incorporate at least two sustainable growing practices, such as giving up chemical fertilizers and pesticides, mulching to conserve water, reducing lawn areas and choosing native plant species.
Property owners who certify their wildlife habitat online through the NWF's Web site --http://www.nwf.org/backyard/ -- will receive a certificate of achievement and be listed in the National Registry of Backyard Wildlife Habitat sites. Additionally, a press release with news of the certification will be sent to local media.
"Almost everyone lives in a community where they're starting to see green places disappear ... and they realize animals are losing their habitats, natural landscapes are disappearing," Paul said.
Nature deficit disorder
David Mizejewski, co-host of the weekly makeover-style show "Backyard Habitat" on the cable TV channel Animal Planet agrees that people are getting nervous about losing touch with their natural environment.
"The boomers are noticing that they're not seeing certain species that they used to see when they grow up, and they're getting worried," he said.
"In a generation or two we could go from being fairly knowledgeable about certain species to not even noticing that these species are completely gone or [that they] show up later and later each year."
Mizejewski says his show, which began in 2005, helps families find ways to enjoy the nature around them in a safe environment: their own backyards.
"Kids have nature deficit disorder," he says. "They are no longer having any contact with the natural world. They won't know that a tadpole turns into a frog because they're all inside watching TV and playing video games.
"[The show] is a great concept because when you go out in your backyard and put something in the ground yourself it means more to you, you get more pleasure from it."
And creating a natural wildlife habitat is just as possible in the city as it is on a large plot in the country, Paul said.
"It's quality, not quantity. You could have an acre lot with a lawn and patio and you're not doing a thing for wildlife. But you could have a little townhouse, and if you put in a couple of feeders, a water source, shrubs, butterfly plants, you will get a lot more wildlife than that acre property. It's just amazing," she said.
While Mizejewski likes tackling one backyard project at a time on his show, he's hopeful that neighbors will begin talking to neighbors about preserving natural habitats and the trend will morph into community-based movements to save the environment.
That's exactly what's happening on Camano Island.
According to Schroeder, four neighborhoods and more than 600 homes, community areas or businesses are certified as natural habitats. Island residents, with the help of state, county and local preservation groups, also have saved a heron colony that boasts roughly 400 nests across a 30-acre stretch of old-growth forest.
"Sometimes it's incredibly draining because development continues on," Schroeder said.
"But what's the alternative? Some people have thousands or millions of dollars to donate (to preserving natural habitats), but for those of us who don't, but who still care deeply, this is what we can do."
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