Two Kalispell siblings cite changes to skiing and hunting seasons as reasons for joining the coalition of Montana youth suing several state agencies over failure to secure their ‘right to a clean and healthful environment.’
By Micah Drew FLATHEAD BEACON
If it weren’t for school, Badge Busse would ski every day during the winter months at Whitefish Mountain Resort, just north of his Kalispell home. Badge, 14, spends every weekend on the mountain where he’s a member of the freestyle ski team.
“One of the main things I look forward to when I think about my future is looking at weather reports, seeing if fresh pow dropped, and getting to go ski it,” Badge said.
While riding the chairlift one winter, his freestyle coach made an offhand comment about the future of resort skiing. “He said, ‘my kids might be able to ski on this, with real snow, but your kids definitely won’t,’” Badge recalled. “It was just this complete eye opener. I just want to be able to ski with my kids in the future.”
Concern about how climate change will affect winter recreation has been growing in the Whitefish community and ski towns around the country for years. To further raise awareness, Whitefish Mountain Resort (WMR) recently teamed up with environmental nonprofit Protect our Winters to produce a short film about the effects of climate change on the local community and its economy. The film cites a recent study in which climate models project that annual operating seasons at WMR and 246 other ski resorts could be dramatically shortened in the coming decades.
At WMR there are currently roughly 120 skiable days annually. Under the worst-case scenario, without active mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions, by 2050 that number drops to just 56, according to the study. In the same period, nearby Blacktail Mountain Ski Area, just south of Kalispell, drops from 128 to fewer than 60 skiable days. At Big Sky Resort, a popular hub for out-of-state visitors and the ultra-wealthy near Yellowstone National Park, the number drops from 214 to 173. Across the western U.S., downhill skiing locations are projected to see reductions of roughly 50% on average by 2050, even accounting for snowmaking ability.
“I do not want my kids to only ski on artificial snow,” Badge said. “Skiing is my happy place, especially on Whitefish Mountain. I need them to have the same experience, the same connection to the earth that I have when I’m skiing.”
Brothers Badge and Lander Busse are two of the 16 youth plaintiffs in the constitutional climate change lawsuit Held v. State of Montana, which was filed in Montana’s First Judicial District Court in 2020. The lawsuit alleges that the state, through several of its agencies, including the Department of Natural Resources, Department of Environmental Quality, and Montana Department of Transportation, has implemented and overseen policies that violate the plaintiffs’ right to a clean and healthful environment, a provision provided in the Montana Constitution when it was ratified in 1972.
The lawsuit specifically names two statutes — the State Energy Policy and a provision in the Montana Environmental Protection Act (MEPA) that excludes consideration of regional climate effects on state development decisions — that are actively adding greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere, aggravating the effects of climate change, and threatening the youths’ future way of life.
It’s not the first time the Busse brothers have taken climate change to court. In 2011, the two brothers were part of a petition by the nonprofit law firm Our Children’s Trust asking the Montana Supreme Court to declare that the state has a duty to protect and preserve the atmosphere for its citizens and must take action to curb greenhouse gas emissions. That claim, while dismissed by the court, was one of the earliest in the United States in which children attempted to hold a government entity accountable for the effects of climate change that threatened their personal and economic well-being.
Lander and Badge, just 6 and 2 at the time, were involved in the suit through their parents, who say they were already worried about how climate change would affect their boys’ future. Their father, Ryan, said Lander was energetic and affirmative about the idea, even back then. “Now, would they have been involved if their parents hadn’t brought it up?” Ryan said. “Of course not. But did they still make decisions? Yes, they did.”
Twelve years later, the Busse brothers are taking on the state again for its role in promoting the fossil fuel industry and contributing to climate change, this time of their own accord.
At a recent oral argument hearing before Lewis and Clark County District Judge Kathy Seeley, lead counsel for the plaintiffs, Roger Sullivan, brought up the delay in justice.
“Here we are, your honor, 12 years later, after three and a half years of intense litigation, ready for trial,” Sullivan said. “[Lander and Badge] sit here today, Lander’s graduating from high school and Badge is a freshman in high school, and yet they still have not had their day in court.”
The youthful nature of Held’s plaintiffs has brought increased scrutiny by the defendants, who have characterized the kids as too young to understand the impacts of climate change. In an email to the Beacon, Kyler Nerison, communications director and spokesperson for the Montana attorney general’s office, painted Our Children’s Trust as a “special interest group that is exploiting well-intentioned kids.”
“I really couldn’t disagree more with that framing,” Lander said, noting that even if he hadn’t understood the implications of a lawsuit 12 years ago, it was still his future on the line. “We were very young back then, but at the same time, Badge and I have been living in the outdoors and caring for it our whole lives, even then.”
When the Busses learned that Our Children’s Trust had been building a stronger case to bring back to court, the decision to join came from the kids.
“It was us that jumped on it this time, not our parents,” Badge said. “It was something we realized we needed to do.”
In the intervening nine years between the two legal filings, the brothers had learned more about the science of climate change and begun to see the implications in their daily lives. Badge says seeing increased wildfires in the region, changes to their family’s traditional hunting grounds and limits to recreating on the local rivers weighed on his mind as he faced an inability to take any action to preserve his way of life.
“I always wanted an outlet for it,” he said. “This case has been the biggest relief for me, because I’m actually doing something now.”
The Busse brothers clearly convey the experiences and memories that define their stance on climate activism. It’s most certainly a Busse family trait — their father, Ryan, is a well-known activist who has challenged the firearm industry, while their mother, Sara, runs a public relations firm and worked on Democrat Monica Tranel’s unsuccessful 2022 congressional campaign against Ryan Zinke, the eventual winner.
They can tell captivating stories that showcase deep connections with land around the West. Each brother has an affinity toward their namesakes — Lander has a photo of himself standing next to the entrance sign to Lander, Wyoming, from his first visit there on a bird hunting trip with his father. Meanwhile, Badge is named after the Badger-Two Medicine, a roadless section of the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest that is a sacred landscape to the Blackfeet Nation, and which has been a centerpiece in the tribe’s years-long battle to retire the last remaining oil-and-gas leases there. A recent summertime horse-packing trip Badge made with his father remains a highlight among many memories in Montana’s outdoors.
“Montana land is just such a special and unique place … I need it in my day-to-day life,” Badge says.
Both brothers find connection to the land through hunting — their house is a veritable trophy room from hunts over the years — and they’ve seen changes to their traditional hunting grounds: wildfires, droughts and extreme temperatures pose challenges to wildlife and alter their normal range and populations. It’s a part of the Busse family identity that the brothers are worried about losing.
“Every hunt is so unique. There’s always some different obstacle or experience that makes it special,” Lander said. He has strong memories of his first hunt with his father, being taught proper technique when handling a firearm, waking before dawn to hike into their camp and watching herds of deer crossing the prairie hills around them while on the other side of the valley ranchers were herding some cattle.
“It was one of my first experiences being so fully immersed in nature, walking along, and noticing all the animals, every little granite rock poking up from the earth. I think about that hunt a lot, being there with my dad and the things I’ve learned from him in terms of the efficacy of being a hunter and the responsibility you carry every time you go out in the field,” Lander said.
While joining the lawsuit gives the Busse brothers a sense that they’re making a difference in their future, there’s also an isolating factor to their involvement. They don’t talk about the case outside of their family or among close friends, and few in the community know of their involvement, in part because of the Flathead Valley’s political leanings. All but one legislator from Flathead County voted in support of a raft of bills targeting environmental protections during the recent legislative session.
“It’s a little scary to have this case going on in the face of a legislative body that does not have any respect for the environment and very clearly is trying to disregard this case,” Lander said. “A lot of their actions point towards a government that’s really frightened about where this case is going.”
Lander also said he feels the Flathead Valley, as a community, isn’t as supportive of the fight against climate change. In contrast, several organizations in Missoula held a rally and panel for Held proponents last month, with two more planned in Great Falls and Billings in June. Without many peers to connect with locally, Badge said joining the case and being able to talk with like-minded kids across the state was a relief.
Despite the opposition in the Legislature and from the named defendants, as the trial date draws closer and media attention nationwide spikes, the Busse brothers are expressing optimism for their day in court.
“Every plaintiff involved in this case, we’re just normal kids at the end of the day, all doing their own thing, who saw an opportunity trying to get the word out and fight for the things they love,” Lander said. “I feel like we have a citizen’s duty to uphold the Constitution, so it doesn’t really matter if we have people trying to disagree with us in the Flathead. We’re doing it for them as much as for the people who agree with us.”
For all the beautiful places encompassed within northwest Montana, Lander Busse’s favorite is comparatively modest. A few hundred yards down the road that leads to his house on the western side of the Flathead Valley is a user-crafted trail that crosses the edge of a private property and switchbacks through a grove of pines.
There are many faint trails around this area, several leading up to a giant “F” shaped out of whitewashed stones piled dozens of feet high on the side of a hill. One of the trails loops around the base of the hill and ascends toward the top where, just before the summit, there’s a little rocky knob from which Lander can overlook the entire Flathead Valley.
The backdrop of the view is the Swan Range, which forms the eastern border of the valley. To the north, the cut ski trails of Whitefish Mountain Resort are visible and, to the northeast, a notch in the Swan Range reveals a keyhole view of the snow-covered peaks of Glacier National Park.
On a clear May afternoon, Lander joined his brother at the overlook, where the siblings shared the view.
“It means a lot to me on a really personal level. Whenever I need to just take a deep breath and relax, I’ll head up there,” Lander said. “I wouldn’t even say it’s a particularly pretty trail or anything like that, but I can go up there and see everywhere I’ve lived my life up to this point.”
This article is part of a series on the youth-led constitutional climate change lawsuit Held v. Montana, which goes to trial in Helena on June 12. The rest of the series can be read at mtclimatecase.flatheadbeacon.com. This project is produced by the Flathead Beacon newsroom, in collaboration with Montana Free Press, and is supported by the MIT Environmental Solutions Journalism Fellowship.