By Maria Wyllie
Explore Big Sky Associate Editor

Selling cars might seem like an unusual career choice for a conservationist. But Alan Cawthon, owner of Montana Import Group, recognizes that most people need vehicles, so he aligns his dealership with current trends in environmental responsibility while giving back to the conservation community.

In 2009, Montana Import Group, which owns and operates Subaru of Bozeman, Bozeman Volkswagen and Hyundai of Bozeman, changed its operations model, going “green” from the inside out.

“[Cawthon] is very passionate about nature and conservation and felt that with the products he was selling, he could actually do something meaningful with his business,” said Columbine Culberg, the company’s Director of Environmental and Community Affairs, who Cawthon hired in 2009 as a consultant to develop a green operations model for the business.

In 2012, Montana Import Group became the first eco-certified dealer in the country by Subaru of America, and helped design the program structure now implemented by dealerships nationwide.

The business donates 10 percent of all profits to nonprofit partners and other organizations in the community including the Gallatin Valley Land Trust, Big Sky Community Corporation, Craighead Institute, the Wilderness Society, Greater Gallatin Watershed Council, Friends of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center, Montana Raptor Conservation Center and Western Sustainability Exchange.

Montana Import Group also supports advertising, provides loaner vehicles and donates cash to these organizations, and makes its dealership space available for stewardship communication, allowing partners to hold meetings at its main location on Frontage road and display promotional materials at all locations throughout the dealership.

“It was really important for us to choose groups who represent different facets of conservation and stewardship, and to choose groups who work in our community,” Culberg said.

The projects these partnerships have supported include the construction of Bozeman City Hall’s rain garden; science education scholarships; restoration of the Sourdough Canyon trailhead; wildlife and ecosystem research to help inform conservation planning locally and statewide; and monitoring local watersheds.

In less than a year, the dealership’s community partners have put more than 50,000 miles on the company’s Subaru PZEV (Partial Zero Emission Vehicle) loaner vehicles provided specifically for their use.

“We strongly believe that groups that invest in conservation and nature can help the community the most as a whole,” Culberg said.

Entering 2014, Montana Import Group aims to continue building ongoing relationships with local organizations that benefit the community. Want to learn more or get your nonprofit involved? Contact Columbine Culberg at columbine@montanaimportgroup.com.