Garnering Successes, Gardening for Wildlife: A Camano Island Volunteer with a Passion for Conservation

When Val Schroeder wakes up at her beachside home on Camano Island, in Western Washington, she has plenty to look forward to. She can walk the shoreline and view Whidbey Island, the Olympic Mountains, as well as venture into her garden and check on her native plants, and — on a lucky day — catch a glimpse of fledgling eaglets in their roost. Camano Island hosts rich diversity in ecosystems, including coniferous forests, miles of shoreline, and bountiful estuaries. This variety of beautiful natural areas helped catalyze Val’s passion for habitat conservation.

The foundation for Val’s interest in the outdoors began with fishing trips with her father. They traveled the Midwest to fish on the plentiful rivers and lakes. Fishing on Lake Superior as a young child instilled an early appreciation for “big water,” which followed her to college where she became a YMCA camp counselor. Val would take campers on canoe trips and this cemented her love for nature and water. Eventually, as a young woman, she embarked on an extensive sailing trip that took her to Fiji, Hawaii, San Francisco, and finally Seattle. Surrounded by the towering conifers and bays and inlets of Puget Sound, Val decided to stay in Washington. She and her husband moved to Camano Island in 1994.

Certification: What’s good for Tukwila is good for Camano Island

Twenty years ago, Val read an article published in National Wildlife about the certification of Tukwila as a Community Wildlife Habitat. She had noticed the destruction of pristine habitat on her island and figured, “if Tukwila can [certify], why not Camano?” She was grieving the loss of native trees due to logging and development on Camano Island and wasn’t satisfied standing idle as green spaces were reduced around her home. So Val not only began to transform her own garden into a wildlife habitat, she then turned to encouraging others to do the same.

Courtesy of Val Shroeder

Val took the information she had gathered from the National Wildlife Federation and presented it to the Friends of Camano Island Parks board. They in turn formed a working committee of five people and with $500, began converting yards and community spaces into wildlife habitats. By 2004, Val was conducting outreach every weekend at a local grocery store, publicizing Certified Wildlife Habitats (CWH) at a fair, and administering Habitat Steward trainings. By the end of 2005, there were 500 other island landowners who had certified their yards.

As a result, Camano Island became the 10th Community Wildlife Habitat in the nation and now boasts over 1,000 Certified Wildlife Habitats. In 2006, Val was awarded the Federation’s Volunteer of the Year in response to the many nominations by her peers and NWF-affiliates. 

“The award represents what a cool project Camano has because I certainly didn’t do it alone!” Val said. Partnership and collaboration are a common theme when she describes the gardening successes on Camano Island. 

Growing volunteer action

Reflecting on the growth of the Camano Island Community Wildlife Habitat, Val highlighted the need for volunteering and the necessity for action in the face of environmental degradation. 

“Without the wildlife habitat project, I would just be frustrated about what’s happening to the environment,” she said adding that she felt compelled to protect those that can’t necessarily protect themselves. Val noted that when she began her work on Camano Island that she was “going to be part of the voices that speak out for the wildlife.” The plurality of voices is also key here because Val repeats how critical the joined effort of island residents is to the success of this Community Wildlife Habitat. Working with people who also care for wildlife and want to make a difference is enriching and pushes Val to continue her work. 

Val Schroeder’s certified wildlife habitat at her beachside home on Camano Island. Courtesy of Val Shroeder.

While changes have sprouted all over the island, Val can also see the results of her passion in her own backyard. When she first moved to Camano Island, her home had unobstructed views of the beach, typically sought after as a major benefit to a property. But those benefits come at the cost of trees. With the growth of her habitat garden, her property now hosts big, tall trees, and her yard is bursting with native plants. It’s a refreshing green and shady oasis during the hot summer months for her, her husband, and all the various wildlife attracted to the garden. 

Now, as the 20th anniversary of the Camano Island Wildlife Habitat approaches, we celebrate the efforts of Val Schroeder, her husband, and all of the neighbors she recruited to make their island more hospitable for wildlife to thrive. We are inspired by neighbors who install certified wildlife habitats rather than rev up the lawnmower. A new demonstration garden is being planned to celebrate the many years and many habitats created after 20 years. Every certified habitat is a new voice that calls for the protection of wildlife.