Camano Island woman pushes for wildlife-friendly yards

CAMANO ISLAND — Val Schroeder’s goal is to help establish wildlife habitats in 1,000 back yards on the island.

Native plants that offer food, water gardens, thickets that provide shelter and safe places for nesting are features of backyard wildlife habitats, she said.

Pointing to a map published by the National Wildlife Federation, Schroeder explained that Camano Island has more certified backyard habitats per capita than any other place in Western Washington. In addition, the island was the federation’s 10th nationally certified community wildlife habitat, she said.

More than that, Camano Island is one of the best community habitats in the country, said Roxanne Paul, the National Wildlife Federation’s program coordinator in Washington, D.C.

“Val’s dedication is remarkable,” Paul said. “She and the people on Camano do much more than put out bird feeders. They have been a true inspiration to others.”

Schroeder, who won the federation’s national volunteer of the year award in 2006, isn’t satisfied with the current 700 back yards involved in the Camano Island Community Wildlife Habitat Project. She’s thankful for all who participate, but wants to see more.

Schroeder, 51, longs to see the island “live in harmony with nature,” a phrase that peppers her every conversation.

“We live in paradise. Camano is a magical place and we want to be able to help preserve it for all the critters,” she said.

Schroeder rides the bus from the island to her job as a nationally certified English teacher at Stanwood High School, where she has taught for nearly 18 years. When not busy working with students and correcting their papers, heading up the local wildlife habitat project, working in her own yard or exercising at the gym, she is writing two novels.

It’s a busy and satisfying life, she said.

A journalism graduate of the University of Minnesota and former newspaper reporter, she made her way to the West Coast as a crew member on a 38-foot sailboat cruising from Hawaii to San Francisco.

A stop in Seattle on a beautiful summer evening convinced Schroeder to make a permanent move to Washington state.

“I’ve been a water person all my life, so I was happy to move to Camano to become an island girl,” she said with a laugh. “Wherever I am, I have to get to the water’s edge.”

Not long after moving to Camano, Schroeder and her partner Dave Baumchen tore out their lawn. They learned to conserve water and soil, and gardened with native plants such as salal, fern, shore pines, dogwood, ocean spray, madrona and red-flowering currant.

When Schroeder noticed that Tukwila, an urban community between Seattle and Tacoma, had earned a community wildlife designation with the National Wildlife Federation, she was challenged to do the same.

“If Tukwila can do that, I thought, well by golly, we can do that on Camano,” she said.

It didn’t take long before 500 people had their back yards certified as habitats and many people were involved, Schroeder said.

“The recognition we got from National Wildlife Federation wasn’t a one-person thing,” she said, referring to her national award. “We have many volunteers who share the vision and work very hard.”

Her volunteer project and her job as a teacher go well together, she said.

“My community involvement provides my students with a role model for being a good citizen,” Schroeder said. “It’s great to be able to feel you are contributing.”

Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; gfiege@heraldnet.com.

If you go

The Camano Wildlife Habitat Project has scheduled a presentation by the Whidbey Camano Land Trust group at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Camano Multipurpose Center, 141 E. Camano Drive. For more information, call 360-387-2236 or e-mail camanobwh@yahoo.com.

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