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PHOTO COURTESY OF UNSPLASH.COM

Big Sky’s new Sustainability Committee

By Jessianne Castle EBS ENVIRONMENTAL & OUTDOORS EDITOR

BIG SKY – By the mid-century, temperatures in Montana are expected to be 4.5 to 6 degrees F warmer in Montana and the Gallatin Valley is projected to be around the size of Minneapolis, with a whopping 420,000 residents.

These stats, gathered by the Montana Climate Assessment and Bozeman’s Headwaters Economics, beg for action today and communities with an outdoor predicated economy just might need to look to the winds of change in order to survive.

Definitions

In Big Sky, with its robust economy driven by skiing and outdoor recreation, where the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce reports tourism and hospitality make up 70 percent of the community’s employment base, a cohort of organization and business leaders are looking to the future in order to develop a resilient Big Sky today.

On Oct. 17, a 15-person panel comprising the Big Sky Sustainability Committee met for the very first time as a first step toward creating a community-wide plan of action.

“It’s so important in Big Sky not only because of how beautiful the landscape is, but also because we’re unincorporated it can be harder to push initiatives through,” said Josh Treasure, the chairman of the committee and manager of Roxy’s Market. “We’re excited for community involvement and to make Big Sky a more beautiful place.”

The committee will convene once a month with the next meeting slated for Nov. 21 at 3 p.m. at the Visit Big Sky office.

The group was organized by VBS and the inaugural meeting followed a sustainability training at Bridger Bowl Ski Area on Oct. 9-10. The training was taught by Kim Langmaid, founder and vice president of sustainability programs at the Walking Mountains Science Center in Vail, Colorado. Langmaid also spoke in Big Sky during a Sustainability Lunch and Learn event on Oct. 11 that focused on the ways other mountain resort communities are launching sustainability initiatives.

“I think as we talk about sustainability for Big Sky, it’s how do we maintain our ecosystem,” said Big Sky Chamber of Commerce and VBS CEO Candace Carr Strauss, who attended the sustainability training.

She added that a holistic approach is necessary, one that incorporates environmental, social, cultural and economic sectors of a community. We need to be economically sustainable, environmental stewards, support behavioral health and provide housing, she said. “If our people can’t afford to live here and it’s just second homeowners and visitors, then we’ve eroded the fabric of our community.”

In 2017, VBS asked Big Sky residents to name the vital elements of the community and overall needs as a part of the Big Sky DNA Study. “And we heard loud and clear the need to balance outdoor recreation and the consumption of this place, by visitors and residents alike, with respect, stewardship and preservation of place,” Carr Strauss said.

Getting on the same page

First steps for the Sustainability Committee will be to assess current sustainability efforts as a means of getting the entire community on the same page.

“I think there are pockets of people doing things throughout the community,” Carr Strauss said, giving examples like Outlaw Partners, Moonlight Community Foundation and Rotary Club of Big Sky’s effort to eradicate single-use plastic at community events, or a large composting initiative going on at the Yellowstone Club.

Once the committee has a better understanding of the smaller-scale actions, it will be able to consider steps on a community-wide scale. According to Treasure, some of the committee’s first actions might be to reduce single-use plastics across all Big Sky businesses, install central recycling bins and to place compost bins at every local business.

In addition to preparing for the future, a Big Sky sustainability plan could also help the community achieve the Mountain IDEAL destination standard, which is recognized by the Actively Green Global Sustainable Tourism Council as a certification program for mountain resort communities that are elevating their sustainability performance, stakeholder engagement and collaboration. It’s recognition a community is a global leader in sustainability, an accolade Vail achieved in 2018, making the resort the first “Certified Sustainable Destination” in the world.

To become certified, a destination must meet over 40 criteria that include making use of low-impact transportation; protection of sensitive environments like wildlife habitats, rivers and streams; regulations that prevent feeding and exploiting wildlife; and a climate change adaptation plan that identifies challenges and opportunities associated with a warming change, among others.

Moving forward

“Something like the Mountain IDEAL covers a lot of areas,” said Big Sky resident Twila Moon, a research scientist with the National Snow and Ice Data Center. “It covers reducing climate change, but also relates to the community, things like affordable housing.”

A woman who’s made a career studying glaciers and melting ice, Moon’s passion for sustainable actions is visible in her very choice to take coffee without a plastic lid. 

Certainly supportive of the sustainability effort, Moon said it’s important to remember that environmental sustainability doesn’t necessarily equate to steps that reduce climate change. Things like renewable energy or reducing overall energy use would make for a more sustainable community while also helping to reduce climate change, but other efforts like reducing single-use plastics might not do anything for a warming climate.

While Carr Strauss said it is premature for the Sustainability Committee to make recommendations for the community, there are certainly actionable steps individuals might consider that could lessen the effects of climate change and also improve sustainability.

Moon calls the warming trend a “climate crisis,” one that demands action today. “Perhaps that [phrase] helps to embody the real sense of urgency that the situation calls for,” she said, adding that it’s time to get beyond the cause and get to the solutions.

“There are solutions that fit every individual, organization or group,” Moon said, citing carbon footprint mapping and suggestions made by the global research organization Project Drawdown. As one example, she said residents can opt to have renewable energy supplied to their home through NorthWestern Energy’s E+ Green program or Arcadia Power.

“I think we’re challenged in a sense that we’re a tourist-dependent economy and tourism is generally a high-carbon-use space. It requires a lot of travel, people eating out, things that are not conducive to a small footprint.” That said, Moon suggested renewable energy as a great way to combat the problem.

Ultimately, while individual steps are important, Moon said larger initiatives are required. “Institutional and government change has to happen if we hope to achieve a reasonable preservation of the planet. That requires people to speak up and tell government and businesses and incorporations that this has to happen.”

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