While cars are being put together at General Motors’ Fairfax Assembly plant in Kansas City, Kansas, nearby, mourning doves and scissortail flycatchers tend their young on 2½ acres of habitat. At its Lansing Delta Township site in Michigan, there are more than 20 acres of woodlands, 40 acres of restored prairie and 15 acres of wetlands, where both migratory and local songbird species can find duck boxes, floating nest platforms, raptor perches, partially submerged log structures, and mallard nesting tubes for their shelter and breeding needs.

GM, one of the biggest automakers in the world, has a serious commitment to eco-friendliness. “GM believes in sustainability,” says Global Diversity Program Manager Sue Kelsey. “It’s a core part of our business. If we’re not building eco-friendly products and making our facilities sustainable, then what are we doing to the world?” What it has done is set a goal to have 100 percent of its manufacturing sites certified as wildlife habitats by the year 2020. “Globally, we’re 80 percent of the way there. Right now, we have 71 certified sites in 14 different countries.”

Rethinking normal

According to Kelsey, it’s all about “rethinking what’s normal.” She flies around the world to GM’s assembly plants, technology centers and other facilities to help get sustainable projects started.

One of them might begin with something as simple as establishing “no-mow” zones, where grasses are allowed to grow tall, providing cover for animals to nest, burrow and breed. Or, she’ll suggest changing mowing schedules from once a week, to once a month, or even to twice a year.

Rethinking normal means changing the formal ornamental plantings that typically grace front entrances. “At all of our facilities, we’re encouraging including more native species in the plantings in front of buildings. And, in the more open areas behind them, away from casual observers driving by, we can let plants grow taller.”

Simple changes such as these make a big difference to the living creatures who share corporate lands. Ron Hynd can attest to that. He’s a landscape architect who works for the contractor Aramark, and is grounds maintenance manager at GM’s 730-acre Global Technical Center in Warren, Michigan.

“When I first came here seven years ago, we didn’t have anything like this, it was purely a mowed site. We converted 35 acres to no-mow zones, and within two years, saw a significant upswing in smaller mammals.”

And larger ones, too. “There’s a no-mow area in front of the building where I work. Two years ago, we saw twin fawns playing in front of the building. We’ve also seen a significant increase in the number of birds of prey — peregrine falcons and red-tailed hawks — who feed on the smaller mammals, and we’ve counted five active fox dens, too.”

Pleasant surprises come in the form of flora as well as fauna. At one of GM’s facilities in Grand Lake, Michigan, a controlled burn was done to remove invasive species. “What happened after that was absolutely fascinating,” says Kelsey. “Wildflower species were coming up that we’d never seen before, as they’re very rare in Michigan. We were wondering, ‘Where in the world did these plants come from?’ The best thing we could determine is that these seeds must have lain dormant in the soil for decades, maybe even a hundred years. When they finally got hit with enough heat, they suddenly sprouted up.”

To be sustainable, there also must be changes in how a site is maintained. Hynd tries to be as chemical-free as possible, using no fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides in the habitat areas, and, following the principles of integrated pest management, would never use them unless he saw a highly invasive population of insects building up that could move out into the surrounding environment.

But Kelsey says herbicides are used selectively on certain sites to remove invasive species such as phragmites. These plants can take over and destroy a habitat.

Every site is different, with its own challenges and roadblocks. “We have a little bit of a handicap here, insofar as Warren is a historical site. We have to maintain, to a certain extent, the feel of what the place was like 50 years ago.”

“The plantings around the buildings were originally Pfitzer junipers. Prior to my getting here, some of them had been removed and replaced with yews. I am trying to replace the Pfitzers with a native juniper that gives a similar effect. When we do replacements, we try to go with natives whenever possible.”

When Kelsey evaluates a site, she looks at what kinds of plants are already there, then looks at over-seeding them with flower mixes, to bring forth various colors at different times of the year: yellow one month, blue the next, then pink, with a variety of plant heights. More importantly, “This recreates grasslands and prairies, creating habitats for birds, butterflies and little critters of all sorts.”

One of the most important things she examines are the transitional areas — the corridors where the turf meets the trees. Many of GM’s properties have woods for backyards.

These transitional areas are vital habitat areas, Kelsey says, very important for songbirds, as well as pollinators such as butterflies, dragonflies and bees.

“The majority of bees in the United States are solitary species. They need to be able to find hollow stems in which to lay their eggs. People don’t realize these areas are critical to biodiversity, and mow them down,” says Kelsey.

But she’s not the only one bringing ideas to the company’s outposts. Part of the thrill of her job is finding out what’s already being done at some of the sites worldwide, and bringing those discoveries to other facilities.

“At one of our plants in Brazil, all the cafeteria garbage is taken to a machine that’s slightly bigger than a residential clothes washer,” says Kelsey. “It grinds it up, heats it, and sanitizes it, so there are no flies and no smell. In about eight hours, it spits out what looks like beautiful, loamy soil.”

The sterile compost is then put into 55-gallon drums and buried, in order to replenish beneficial soil bacteria. In 30 to 45 days, it’s dug up and used around the property. “It’s so rich in organic matter that while they’re spreading it, the birds are flying right behind, picking stuff out of it.”

Yes, this is real

We mentioned that these wildlife habitats are certified. “By whom?” is the next question you may be wondering. The corporate sites we mentioned, and others owned by hundreds of other companies around the world are certified by the Wildlife Habitat Council, a non profit organization based in Silver Spring, Maryland.

WHC’s mission is to “promote and certify habitat conservation and management on corporate lands through partnerships and education.” And it’s no Johnny-come-lately; in 2018, WHC will mark its 30th birthday. Member companies, besides GM, include Ariens, DuPont, Dow, IBM, Toyota, ExxonMobil, Boeing and Bayer.

Receiving third-party verification gives corporate projects street cred. “A company cannot just go out and say, ‘Look at all this great stuff we’re doing,’ without verifying it, because no one will believe it,” says WHC’s senior director of strategy and planning, Josiane Bonneau, “especially not with the current attitude toward institutions in the U.S. and North America.”

Getting certified by the WHC isn’t easy. “It’s not like, pay your money, and here you go,” says Kelsey. The organization has 21 strict standards for creating wildlife habitat. These must all be met by a project before it can be certified. Then, it must be recertified every two or three years.

Kelsey listed five of the most important criteria. First, a project must exceed what already-established environmental regulations call for. Say, for instance, that a company is remediating a site, and there’s a requirement that 300 trees be planted. A project would have to include more than 300 trees, or the project wouldn’t be certified.

Second, a project must have a clear conservation objective; third, it must provide values and benefits; fourth, it must be monitored and documented; and five, it has to be locally appropriate. Establishing an elephant habitat in Florida may be great thing, but it won’t get certified, because elephants aren’t normally found roaming ‘round the Sunshine State.

“You can’t just say, ‘We’re going to put a butterfly garden in at our corporate headquarters,’” says Kelsey.

“Well, that’s nice, but what’s the objective? If you can’t define what you’re doing and what its value and benefits are, if you can’t answer that, it’s not a certifiable project.”

Getting the community on board

You would think that the people living in the communities near these projects, or, their leaders, would be thrilled with these efforts. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. When long prairie grasses and wildflowers replace the manicured campus lawns they’re used to seeing, people start using words like “unkempt” and “abandoned.”

“One of the problems we had in Warren was with the city’s ‘weed ordinance,’” says Kelsey. This meant that the grass could only get so high before it would have to be mowed.

For a long time, the people maintaining the habitat quietly did their thing, and the city left them alone. “Then suddenly, they got a notice of violation and had to rip their habitat out, which was awful,” Kelsey says. Since then, the city has rewritten its ordinance, and the habitat has been restored.

Another problem occurred when milkweed, planted to encourage monarch butterflies, started emerging in various places around the site. “These wildflowers started coming up, and they looked out of place, so some people complained,” says Kelsey. So we said, ‘Why don’t we move them all to one bed area, and do a mass planting?’” That’s not all. Signs and newsletters were printed to educate the locals about the monarchs’ decline: i.e., no milkweed, no monarchs. “And after a while, when people started seeing all these blossoms en masse, they really liked it.”

Not just for PR

Bonneau says, while good public relations is certainly one of the motivations for companies to pursue sustainable conservation and wildlife habitat projects, it’s not the primary one. “We’ve been asking them that question for a long time: ‘What’s in it for you? What are you getting out of this?’” Apparently, a lot. WHC has identified 16 individual drivers for businesses that undertake conservation and environmental education efforts. One of the big ones is “sharing the values of the workforce of the future.” Translate that to: millennials—the workforce of the future — are attracted to sustainable companies.

But the “why” doesn’t really matter so much to the WHC. “No matter what the motivation is, the conservation still happens,” says Bonneau. “As an organization, we’re more interested in the outcome, and not so much in looking ‘under the hood,’ trying to figure out what a company’s ‘real’ objective might be. We just want to get the conservation done.”

Getting buy-in from employees

While Kelsey has a vital role in getting projects off the ground, she can’t be everywhere at once. Employee engagement is a must if these sustainable projects are going to work. Fortunately, GM and other companies get that in spades. Once workers hear about these projects, there’s no problem finding volunteers to serve on habitat committees, according to Kelsey.

To further excite employee interest, Kelsey started a photo contest that anyone connected to GM around the world can enter, whether they’re a contractor, an employee or a child of an employee. The best shots are then selected for the annual company calendar.

Enthusiasm among the workers at the Warren facility is very high, Hynd says. “People are always posting pictures of the animals and flowers they see in the habitats on our employee chat room. People have been attracted to join our habitat committees that wouldn’t have if they hadn’t seen those pictures.”

When they do, they start discovering things they never knew existed.

Like the fact that endangered eastern fox snakes were living at one of the Michigan sites after a no-mow zone had been established. Peregrine falcons, also endangered, have been photographed at the Warren site.

Not everyone is a cheerleader, however. “We have some people who, if they spot any kind of animal onsite, will call us to (humanely) trap and remove it,” says Hynd. “We have a balance between the more wildlife-interested people, and the more urban-oriented individuals who think of a skunk or raccoon as nuisance animals that should be eliminated.”

The biggest push for employee engagement and education at the Warren facility comes via the annual Bring Your Kids to Work Day. Parents and their kids are led by volunteer docents on a quarter-mile nature trail lined with 50-year-old oak trees. They’re introduced to all the animals and native plants they see along the trail, told how the habitat was created and how it impacts the greater community. “We get a lot of positive feedback every time we do that,” says Hynd.

An opportunity for contractors

The push toward creating sustainable landscapes and wildlife habitats on corporate-owned lands represents a golden opportunity for landscape contractors who are familiar with eco-green practices.

Kelsey says that GM used to have its own in-house landscape people, but now, all of its facilities are serviced by outside contractors who sign on for several years.

Bonneau says landscape contractors who know that companies are seeking this type of certification should leverage that to their competitive advantage.

“When companies are reviewing bids for landscape services and one of the contractors says, ‘we can give you the added value of making you eligible for certification for the same price,’ I would pick that one.”

Will your company be the one they choose?

The author is senior editor of Irrigation & Green Industry magazine and can be reached at maryvillano@igin.com.

Other corporate conservation efforts

Corporations in general, especially large ones, have had a reputation for not being terribly nice to Mother Earth. Oil-covered birds, fire-breathing water faucets and clear-cut old growth forests are what people often associate with global capitalist entities.

But, some of these companies, large, medium and small, have been working to change that image by instituting sustainable landscape practices and creating wildlife habitats on lands they own or control. In addition to General Motors, here are some other examples of companies who are leading the way in sustainable landscapes.

  • Oldcastle Building Products, for example, the parent company of Belgard, created a nature trail at the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta. It replaced invasive species with native plants and a pollinator garden and built an outdoor learning space with wildlife viewing platforms.

  • Exelon Corp., an electrical transmission company, transformed two rights-of-way it owns in Maryland into native habitat for birds, bees and butterflies. It was done by planting native vegetation such as Japanese honeysuckle, tree-of-heaven, autumn olive, multiflora rose and mile-a-minute vine.

  • ITC Holdings, part of Detroit Edison, constructed a rain garden at its Wayland, Wisconsin, warehouse in 2012 to deal with erosion caused by excessive runoff. The garden intercepts and absorbs several thousand gallons of stormwater from the warehouse’s roof and provides foraging and nesting habitat for native pollinators and songbirds. It’s since been enhanced with tube bundles to provide nesting habitat for native bees, and nest boxes for wrens and chickadees.