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YCCF and UM bring high-end science to Big Sky

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By Emily Stifler Managing Editor

BIG SKY – Meadow Creek is a dynamic place.

A dozen miles south of Big Sky, it drains into the Taylor Fork of the Gallatin River. A major landslide east of the Meadow Creek trail has caused significant changes to the geology and biological life cycles in recent years, including altering elk migration. Part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, Meadow Creek is also home to wolves, grizzly bears and aquatic creatures.

Supported in part by the Yellowstone Club Community Foundation, Rick Graetz, a University of Montana geography professor, has studied this micro-ecosystem and others nearby for the past two years.

The Big Sky area and the upper Gallatin are an integral part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, according to Graetz. Combine this with the Big Sky community’s strong interest in education, and the partnership between UM and YCCF makes sense.

Graetz first visited Big Sky as high school student in the 1960s, then did a stint as a professional ski patroller in the resort’s early days, and now lives there part-time. A UM professor since 2003, he directs the university’s Crown of the Continent and Greater Yellowstone initiatives, and has also published books on Yellowstone and many other parts of the world.

“He’s so impassioned by it,” said YCCF executive director Casey Schwartz. “Yellowstone National Park is his bloodlines.”

Graetz is leading a larger collaboration in Big Sky as well, bringing University of Montana programming to Yellowstone Club’s Outdoor Pursuits program, Lone Peak High School, and a community lecture series open to the public.

Building on his own research, Graetz is planning to work with freshman and sophomore students in the high school’s expeditions program on what may become ongoing research on the Meadow Creek ecosystem, as well as other drainages nearby.

The idea, says LPHS science and math teacher Paul Swenson, is to do long range studies on plant succession, geomorphology and changing habitat. Swenson and environmental studies teacher Nancy Sheil are leading the project for the school.

“For the kids in kindergarten now, by the time in they’re in high school, they’ll have seven or eight years of research from previous classes they can build on,” Swenson said, explaining that students could continue working on it 20 years from now.

The school’s interdisciplinary approach uses the project to combine science, English, social studies, math and art in a hands-on way, with kids writing down observations, shooting photos to be used in long-term studies, doing field sketches, and comparing the unstable geology to that of nearby Big Sky.

“As a public university, we have an obligation to share knowledge gained, especially when it benefits communities and those who make the university possible,” said Perry Brown, UM’s President of Academic Affairs and Provost Dean.

For the Yellowstone Club, it’s about being good neighbors. “[That’s] an essential part of who we are at the Yellowstone Club Community Foundation,” said board president Sam Byrne, also the club’s principal owner.

Graetz described LPHS as “forward thinking,” and the Yellowstone Club as “progressive,” explaining it’s not commonplace for a private club to have a working relationship with a university.

“We want to support the university to have a bigger footprint in our community,” Schwartz said. “That’s our long term goal.”

For this winter, that means a continuation of the public lecture series, and also partnering with other regional organizations like the Yellowstone Park Foundation and the Big Sky Community Corporation.

“How many kids take science in Yellowstone National Park?” Schwartz asks. “We take it for granted, but it’s an exceptional experience.”

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