By Gabrielle Gasser EBS STAFF
BIG SKY – The typical American lawn is a lush, green mat of Kentucky Bluegrass, a grass that requires high water use, especially in drought-prone places like Big Sky. When considering resource expenditure, the nonnative grass is not well-suited for the high-elevation mountain environment.
Gallatin River Task Force has created a certification program that assesses Big Sky properties and helps homeowners to make the switch to drought-tolerant, native landscaping that local rivers smile upon. The Trout-friendly Landscape Certification program launched at the end of summer 2020, making this the first full summer that it is available.
The goal of the program is twofold, according to Emily O’Connor, conservation program manager with GRTF. “The trout friendly program encourages landscaping practices that protect water quality and quantity,” she said in an interview with EBS.
The benefits from switching to trout-friendly landscaping are numerous. The landscaping is healthier for children and pets, saves homeowners money, creates habitat for local fauna, protects water quality and conserves water.
Water conservation is doubly important in this instance because not only was southwest Montana in a moderate drought for the entire summer last year, the Big Sky County Water and Sewer District recently raised their rates for water. On June 1 the board voted to pass an ordinance that increases water rates by 5 percent for the base rate and rate user tiers. Conserving water will not only benefit the nearby Gallatin River, but it will also take a load off homeowners’ wallets.
This water-wise landscaping also protects water quality from nonpoint source pollutants like fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides which can be replaced with organic options or are unnecessary for native plants. These chemicals can be a significant source of excess nitrogen and phosphorous, according to the GRTF’s website. O’Connor said these excess nutrients enter streams and rivers and become food for the widespread algae blooms seen on the Gallatin in recent years which threaten riparian habitats and river health.
Getting your lawn certified is as simple as completing a seven-step checklist.
There are many resources on GRTF’s website available to homeowners, including checklists for basic and gold certification. Steps include using native plants, reducing chemical use, improving soil and making irrigation practices efficient.
“Having a good soil base reduces the amount of water you need,” O’Connor said. “We are encouraging practical lawn areas so limiting the size and how you maintain it, things like mowing at 3 inches or greater to conserve water.”
Implementing efficient irrigation practices is an equally important part of certification. O’Connor referenced newer irrigation technology that has timers to automatically turn off water based on soil and weather conditions. Getting a new system will not break the bank for homeowners since the Task Force offers rebates on new irrigation equipment.
To help bolster the relatively new program, a conservation fellow from the Montana Conservation Corps, Mark Castaneda, has joined the Task Force team. Castaneda started in May and will be available through October to complete free property assessments and to connect homeowners with a variety of resources and ideas on how they can transform their landscaping.
The certification process is designed to be as easy as possible for homeowners. After scheduling a free assessment with Castaneda to go through the trout-friendly checklist and certification process, homeowners can make any necessary changes and receive any relevant rebates from the Task Force.
One Big Sky homeowner, JeNelle Johnson, shared her experience managing her landscaping. Johnson said she has owned her home in Big Sky for nine years and for the first several years, she spent a lot of time and money on landscaping that didn’t do well.
“The past few years I have gone to a more minimalist approach,” she said. “We have added boulders to our landscaping which look great and don’t need water. We love our native grass and old growth trees. We have installed some drought-tolerant plants near our home that are on a drip system. I’m currently replacing mulch with rock bark for fire resistance. I add a splash of color by planting flowers in a few pots on our front porch and deck.”
Another Big Sky local and the treasurer of the GRTF board of directors, Heather Budd, spoke to the importance of implementing trout-friendly landscaping.
“In our eyes, trout friendly equates to overall river health and overall river health affects everyone who connects with the Gallatin from fishermen and recreationists to downstream landowners and agriculture,” Budd wrote in an email to EBS.
In addition to some Big Sky homeowners who have made the switch, O’Connor said the Town Center Owners Association and Hidden Village Owners Association are currently in the process of certifying. She also said that the Task Force is currently working with the Big Sky Owners Association to recommend updates to implement some trout-friendly and water conservation practices.
Moving forward, O’Connor said the program will split into two different tracks. There will be one for existing properties to certify and a new track for properties that are in the process of being designed and built, the latter of which has not yet been finalized.
She encouraged homeowners to visit the website and take advantage of the variety of information. “We are here as a resource,” she said.
Visit gallatinrivertaskforce.org/trout-friendly for more information on trout-friendly landscaping.