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New sustainability organization steps into the light

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Big Sky SNO to make Big Sky greener, more valuable

By Bella Butler

BIG SKY – While the uniquely raw landscapes around Big Sky are what have compelled many to call the area home and countless others to visit the destination mountain town time and again, the immaculate beauty promises no permanence, at least not without some behavioral changes by its human occupants.

This is a reality that gathered locals Marne Hayes and Ania Bulis, among others, in conversation about the future of sustainability in Big Sky. Hayes, who owns a consulting business and serves as the director of Businesses for Montana’s Outdoors, was contracted to engage in a series of community conversations in the summer of 2019 to gauge interest, a baseline and community priorities around sustainability.

Hayes’ conversations and other interactions among community members on the topic sparked a collective interest in founding a more coordinated effort to tackle green initiatives in Big Sky. A year later, the Big Sky Sustainability Network Organization is a pending 501(c)(3) with initiatives already underway.

“Where we live is this beautiful, pristine, sought after community, both for the people that live here and for the people that visit here, and I think, for me personally, there comes a time where you have to follow through on the things that you need to take care of your community,” Hayes said. “If I’m being honest, I think Big Sky is a little bit behind the eight ball on sustainable practices.”

Hayes said that when juxtaposed with comparable communities, Big Sky has some catching up to do when it comes to sustainability—Vail, Colorado was first Certified Sustainable Destination in the nation to have successfully met the Global Sustainable Tourism Council’s criteria, and Jackson Hole is one of only six communities in the Rocky Mountain region to have passed a zero waste resolution.

However, many of these other communities have an advantage that Big Sky doesn’t: incorporation.

“When you’re not incorporated, when you don’t have a government, getting everyone to adopt…is a challenge,” said Bulis, who is one of seven members on SNO’s steering committee. SNO has been challenged with creating initiatives that foster interest and participation from businesses and community members without mandates. According to Hayes and Bulis, Big Sky has expressed readiness for adopting sustainable priorities.

One of their first projects, obtaining recycling and composting vessels and services for the Town Center area and the Big Sky Community Park, received funding from the Yellowstone Club Community Foundation, Moonlight Community Foundation and resort tax as well as support from Republic Services. Pending the approval of an outstanding grant from the Spanish Peaks Community Foundation, the project will have received money from all entities that SNO applied to. 

“…I think sort of the willingness of all of those people to invest shows that the community is really hungry for these kinds of initiatives. I think it’s such a great win for us…” Hayes said.

Roxy’s Market, which has recently been leaning into green initiatives, started selling aluminum water bottles in an attempt to limit plastic consumption. Roxy’s General Manager, Josh Treasure, is a member of the Big Sky Sustainability Network Organization’s steering committee. PHOTO BY JOSH TREASURE

In its early stages, SNO is focused on generating awareness and cooperation, so while larger, long-term projects are in the works, Bulis said that the organization is most immediately looking to small changes that can have an impact now.

“…[S]ustainability in general is just such a big apple to take a bite out of, right, and so when Marne and I started talking and then Josh [Treasure] and I started talking, I was like ‘What is some low hanging fruit that we can actually act on and create actionable items around?’”

Another project the new organization has implemented is the installation of water-filling stations in Fire Pit Park in Town Center and at the community park. These amenities encourage the use of reusable water bottles and limit plastics. The two stations will be finished by the end of July.

In addition to the steering committee, SNO has a larger working committee of around 20 people. Various subcommittees exist to tackle the many facets of sustainability as they exist in the Big Sky community. One subcommittee is devoted to working alongside the area’s larger entities like Big Sky Resort to implement institutional changes that have the potential to make significant progress due to the business’ scale. Another subcommittee is working toward a greenhouse gas emission calculation and addressing climate-related sustainability issues.

One of the underlying motivations behind the conception of SNO is the possibility of getting Big Sky certified through the Mountain IDEAL program, a designation created through the Walking Mountains Science Center for mountain resort communities. According to the science center, the certification “provides a framework of sustainable tourism criteria and performance indicators that support any mountain destination in elevating its sustainability performance, stakeholder engagement, collaboration, and recognition as a global leader.”

Through the help of a number of funding and support partners, SNO has ordered recycling and compost bins, similar to the above example to be placed in Town Center and the Big Sky Community Park. PHOTO COURTESY OF BIG SKY SNO

According to Hayes, the certification process is a lengthy, multi-year endeavor, one that would likely be achieved officially through the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce and Visit Big Sky, but the existence of SNO and the budding sustainability experts on the committee would be of great benefit in this effort.

The nature of a resort community also dictates the inclusion of tourists in order to achieve true widespread participation. Hayes said SNO is working to weave in the visitor education component as well, by considering options like including reusable water bottles and grocery bags in hotel rooms and rental properties, or creating a marketing page with directions on how to participate in local sustainability.

Bulis, who is a founding broker with Big Sky Real Estate Co., believes that ramping up sustainability efforts will also add value to the area for the growing 30-some-year-old demographic of real estate buyers.

“We all recognize the importance of it living here, but I’m starting to see it as really critical for people who want to live here,” Bulis observed, adding that things like the amount of plastics and the lack of recycling options is not lost on prospective buyers. “People are going to be making decisions on how sustainably a community is run.” Bulis said for many people, it’s not an option, it’s a must.

Bulis said that she agrees with Hayes that Big Sky is behind the curve with regard to sustainability, but she doesn’t feel deterred from finding programming and projects that work for the community.

“I think that the community is pretty hungry for an initiative that takes these things and takes them on and takes them to the next level,” Hayes said.

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