The first of its kind to achieve sanctuary certification

Andrea Vittum is elated about how Audubon International sanctuary certification has transformed her cemetery. It has been 15 years since the facility signed up for the conservation group’s cooperative program, and she not only remembers every step distinctly, she says the aspects she has adopted are still having measurable effects on the property.

White Haven Memorial Park in Pittsford, N.Y., was the first cemetery to join Audubon International’s program. This stimulated Audubon to come up with a cemetery program that matched its golf course sanctuary program. Vittum, president and CEO of White Haven, recalls seeing a golf course in Florida that had used an Audubon certification to good effect, and wondering whether a cemetery could do the same.

Photos by Allan J. Vittum.
The focus of White Haven’s wildlife resources project has been the declining eastern bluebird,which now nests in boxes on the property. One of the projects at White Haven was a nature trail through a forest with burial sites along the way.

At the time, Audubon didn’t have such a program. White Haven had 170 acres of land, about 60 acres of it forested, and the prospects seemed promising. Vittum wanted to do something to help preserve the cemetery’s natural resources and enhance its image as something more than just a place where people were buried, but was a little leery about the rules regarding such conservation reserves, as well as the cost.

There are some rules and restrictions when a property joins the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program, but they’re not onerous, and the benefits are tremendous. In fact, not only has the cost been minimal, but the facility has saved money through management changes and has created new features for guests to enjoy.

“Audubon was perfectly happy to have us as their guinea pig,” Vittum says, because listing cemeteries in a program similar to the golf course management program gave the conservation nonprofit another avenue to promote community environmental projects. In 1993, White Haven joined the program, and it now has a nature trail through its forest, a bluebird nesting program and a horticulturally sound grounds maintenance program that saves money while contributing resources such as compost.

In the spring, White Haven Memorial Park has become a haven for wildlifebecause of its participation in the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program.

Joellen Zeh, programs manager for Audubon International in Selkirk, N.Y., says the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program (ACSP) is a great outlet for facilities wanting to preserve land, improve energy efficiency, use less resources to maintain turf and landscaping, and create a “tranquil sanctuary” that benefits cemeteries in particular. The nonprofit now has 25 cemeteries enrolled in the program, though only four have finished the process.

The primary goal of this program, Zeh says, is to serve as an educational tool whereby communities can participate in environmental planning, water conservation, water quality management, integrated pest management and educational outreach programs that serve as models to the larger area around them. The same program that enrolls cemeteries has also certified facilities such as factories, military bases, nurseries and municipal parks.

“We’ve recently created a different program for schools called Audubon Partners for the Environment,” Zeh says. Audubon International, which is a separate entity from the National Audubon Society, has a goal to protect and sustain natural resources. Its range of programs can be seen at www.auduboninternational.org.

The ACSP process is pretty simple, Zeh says. A facility registers at a cost of $200 annually. A site assessment is required, outlining the environmental plan the facility chooses as well as specific projects to undertake. The facility has to undertake 75 percent of the tasks on an Audubon list, but has flexibility, basing decisions on ideas from a resource advisory committee formed by staff and local experts. Audubon provides information and consultation to help move projects along. After the projects have been completed they are documented and inventoried. Then, a local Audubon-certified resource expert selected from the area will visit the property to verify the results. A recertification is required every two years.

One offshoot of the Audubon projectis a greenhouse where the staff growsflowers for the grounds and eats lunchin the winter. Andrea Vittum is proud of thecemetery’s environmental stance,evidenced by piles of compost madefrom discarded flowers.

“For the most part, we find that people save money through the program,” Zeh says. Certified properties often find it advantageous to reinvest their savings in more projects. In addition, a facility gives itself a green image, and a certain percentage of people will patronize a business or facility if it has created “an environmentally sensitive product.”

That certainly is part of the goal at White Haven, Vittum says. Apart from just wanting to do the right thing and create a beautiful natural resource from their grounds, the cemetery wanted to be a model to the community and attract clients who like the idea of a facility that takes pride in its resources. One of its primary projects was to utilize the forest as both a preserve and a burial site. So, a nature trail was created through the forest, and burial sites for cremation remains are available along a brook, beside a pond or under mature pine trees.

The wildlife and habitat management part of the project was the “fun stuff,” Vittum says. After taking an inventory of their wildlife and making improvements, such as adding a permanent water source for birds and mammals, the facility made bluebirds a focus of its efforts. The staff has gone to considerable effort, with Audubon guidance, to install bird feeders and birdbaths and create five nesting boxes for the declining eastern bluebird. These require some management, but the staff has become protective of their bluebirds and have fledged several young in the nests provided.

As for the landscaping, it has benefited from the resource conservation element of the program, Vittum says. Low-flow drip irrigation has been installed on flowerbeds and other landscaping plants, and Audubon guidelines on turf watering have brought efficiency through practices such as spot watering in the early morning and not in the wind. Grounds personnel learned how to be good stewards by varying mowing height and reducing compaction. Flowerbeds have been mulched, and an energy audit created a baseline and led to savings through insulation installation and use of energy-efficient lighting, high-tech windows and efficient furnaces.

The integrated pest management part of the program was a real eye-opener, Vittum says. Using Audubon guidelines to combat turf grubs, such as the European chafer, the staff learned how to test for pests and spot-treat rather than broadcast pesticides over large areas of turf. In addition to labor savings, the cemetery has saved money on chemicals. Vittum says their pesticide bill has dropped from $12,000 annually to about $3,000. The same principle applies to fertilizers; not only do they use less, they have learned to choose products least harmful to the surrounding environment.

One of the most enlightening, and satisfying, parts of the ACSP was the waste management segment. Vittum says that flowers left at grave sites used to be thrown away because of the wire frames used to shape the bouquets. Audubon suggested that they compost the flowers.

“This was another thing that has been very productive for us,” Vittum says. “They really got us into composting.” Now, White Haven composts large piles of discarded flowers every year, pulls out the wire frames after the process is complete, and uses the resulting compost in flowerbeds and in the cemetery greenhouse used to grow plants for the property. The greenhouse itself was another part of the Audubon project. It wasn’t a recommendation by Audubon, but it was a staff idea that grew out of a conservation frame of mind.

These project elements, along with others such as an active recycling program, have made White Haven an excellent example of environmental stewardship, and the cemetery follows up with educational outreach. Extensive signage around the cemetery, a page on the www.whitehavenmemorialpark.com Web site and even wording in the company phone’s hold message let people know about their commitment to resource conservation.

“We’re positioning ourselves as a resource to the community,” Vittum says, and they are now in the process of planning a guidebook/map that shows off the 50 species of trees on the property. She notes that one of the most important parts of the entire program has been as a morale booster to the cemetery’s own employees. Devoted to making sure the bluebirds carry off a successful clutch to the enjoyment of working in the greenhouse or having lunch there in the dead of winter, staff members have taken the entire program to heart.

Zeh says that Vittum has become a real Audubon and conservation steward in her community. Zeh explains that the cemetery certification program suffered after the tragedies of Sept. 11, as national priorities shifted, but memorial parks are a great opportunity for conservation because they have excellent resources to be protected and shepherded. White Haven was not only the first in the program, it is a great example for other such properties to emulate.

“As important as it is today,” Vittum says of resource conservation, “it will be even more important tomorrow.”

Don Dale is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor. He resides in Altadena, Calif.