Chapter of NC Wildlife Federation seeking national certification for Charlotte

Huge American beech trees form a canopy over parts of a 188-acre nature preserve just 4 miles from uptown Charlotte.

Some of the more than 75 trees could have been standing there in 1815 when the city’s namesake, Queen Charlotte, was still alive in England.

On Saturday, CROWN, a chapter of the N.C. Wildlife Federation, hosted a public tour of RibbonWalk nature preserve, which is part of the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation system.

Among the goals of CROWN, which stands for Charlotte, Reconnecting Ourselves with Nature, include inspiring more people to create wildlife habitats in their own backyards so Charlotte can become a nationally certified Community Wildlife Habitat in 2015.

The project seeks to add several hundred new backyard and schoolyard habitats to the more than 760 Charlotte habitats registered with the National Wildlife Federation.

“We want to educate the public on the benefits of being wildlife friendly,” said CROWN chapter president Ernie McLaney. “We’re too focused on growth and banking. We’ve lost the connection with nature. We’re trying to get people to reconnect with the natural world.”

Sponsored in conjunction with Queens University’s Department of Environmental Science and Chemistry, CROWN is one of 12 chapters of the N.C. Wildlife Federation, including chapters in Matthews, Mooresville, Concord and Gaston County.

McLaney said the Charlotte chapter held its first meeting in September 2013 and has built an email distribution list with more than 800 names. CROWN volunteers do free community programs in Rogers Hall on the Queens campus. The programs cover such diverse topics as bats, butterflies and coyotes.

Also, the chapter partnered with Central Piedmont Community College’s construction department, Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation and the Catawba Lands Conservancy to build barn owl and screech owl houses for county parks and conservancy properties.

Voice for wildlife

Founded in 1945, the N.C. Wildlife Federation is the state’s oldest and largest conservation group, with a mission to save the state’s unique wildlife and habitat. Four cities or communities in the state – Matthews, Lake Norman, Montreat and Weaverville – are among the 78 Certified Community Wildlife Habitats in the U.S.

National certification is based on how many schools, churches, businesses or individual backyards in a city have certified wildlife habitats, based on population. The certification criteria include providing food, water, cover and a place for wildlife to raise young.

According to the National Wildlife Federation, the benefits of community certification include improving air and water quality; reduction in the use of chemical and pesticides; and improving the health and well-being of people.

Tim Gestwicki, chief executive officer of the N.C. Wildlife Federation, called CROWN “the voice for wildlife in Charlotte.”

“They can help build wildlife habitat,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity to be with like-minded folks who care about natural resources. And they’re aggressively going after community wildlife designation.”

CROWN Vice President Dawn Anderson, 58, has the backyard of her Charlotte home certified as a wildlife habitat.

“I put in a bird feeder and a bird bath,” she said. “And bit by bit, I began putting in native plants that encourage insect activity.”

Urban growth

A language arts teacher at Crestdale Middle School in Matthews, Anderson is a North Carolina certified environmental educator who enjoys watching wildlife. In her backyard, she’s seen box turtles, raccoons, possums, squirrels, hawks and has heard a coyote.

Anderson had first joined the HAWK chapter of the wildlife federation in Matthews and helped organize Charlotte’s CROWN chapter.

“I was really happy to be with other people who care about nature and wildlife,” said Anderson, who hopes CROWN can attract more families and young people.

A Charlotte native, McLaney, 61, first connected with nature as a child visiting his grandfather’s small house on the Catawba River. He said the landscape he loved changed as developers clear-cut forests, built homes and put in cheaper plants that weren’t natural to the region.

Urban growth has reduced wildlife habitat, but McLaney said an urban setting can still have native plants and wildlife.

Saturday’s outing at RibbonWalk – a nature preserve that McLaney feels is “underutilized” – pointed that out for 30 adults and eight schoolchildren who showed up for the tour. Within North Carolina’s largest city, the preserve is a landscape with beavers, a resident blue heron and spotted salamanders.

There are two ponds, forests, fields and streams; 53 species of birds, 24 species of butterflies, 106 herbaceous plant species and 78 species of woody plants.

And the preserve is also home of the region’s oldest American beech tree groves, designated in 1996 by the Mecklenburg County Treasure Tree Program as a “Treasure Tree Grove.”

McLaney enjoys RibbonWalk’s quiet solitude.

“It has a calming effect,” he said.