Preserving habitats on campus

Being part of National Wildlife Federation, those of us at Campus Ecology talk a lot about wildlife habitats. Not only are we invested in maintaining biological diversity and preserving the migration paths of plants, birds, butterflies and animals, we also know that creating spaces for wildlife means that we are providing natural carbon sequestration opportunities.

We recently hosted a teleconference on campus habitat restoration (available here) and learned about some great things that schools have been doing to green their campuses through the use of habitat. The University of Central Florida, for example, focused their efforts on education by creating several distinct ecosystems in the UCF arboretum that replicate habitats exclusive to central Florida. The 12-acre biogeographic garden is crisscrossed with trails for students and visitors. The university has also started a temperature tracking system on campus to explore the "urban heat island effect." Native vegetation will be planted on roofs and in hot spots, and then temperature will be tracked again. Staff hope to see significant cooling in certain areas.

Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, Illinois, took a different approach by restoring habitat that had already been damaged.  Oakton’s acres of habitat had been overrun with buckthorn and a Eurasian garlic mustard plant which crowded out native species and plants. With a grant from BP and a lot of help from student volunteers, these plants are slowly being eradicated to make room for seeds from local (within a 25-mile radius) northeastern Illinois. Once these take hold, the ecosystem can return to its natural state and attract pollinating insects and other wildlife. Oakton also uses controlled burns, as local species are adapted to fire and will survive, while invasive plants often won’t.

An even bigger project is currently taking place at The University of Washington Bothell Cascadia Community College, where staffers looked at a dilapidated section of the North Creek floodplain on campus lands, and embarked on a decades-long restoration to manage watersheds and coax the forest back to life. (Look here for more details.) The ongoing restoration acts as a valuable case study to students, while it also attracts good press to the school as one of the biggest floodplain restorations in the Pacific Northwest.

It can sometimes be difficult to convince other campus decision-makers that habitat restoration is important and effective. It took several years to formulate the plan and gain permits for the wetlands restoration project at UWB/CCC, and even though progress is being made, it takes several decades for an ecosystem to reach maturity. Many of the people who contributed to the project may never see this part of North Creek functioning in its full glory. Also, seeing energy costs go down due to increased efficiency is, to many people, more satisfying than knowing that green space is sequestering carbon. This means some campuses are more willing to retrofit buildings than create habitats. Both are important, but we think that the Wildflower loop at UCF’s aboretum is good evidence that habitats are important for well-being, not just carbon capture.

Check out our podcast and powerpoint of the web conference if you want to get more details on these projects. You can also contact us for more research and examples if you’re interested in implementing this kind of project on your own campus. To start small, consider dedicating a small section of your campus as a Certified Wildlife Habitat®. And for extra credit, check to see if Fritz Haeg’s Animal Estates exhibit is coming to your town. This traveling installation reintroduces animals into environments such as strip malls, garages, office parks, freeways, front yards and parking lots to examine the displacement of wildlife by humans and bring species back into harmony.