Being Green in Bozeman

The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope. —Wendell Berry

How do you define the term sustainability? Perhaps the word conjures images of dreadlocked dirt-diggers trying to avoid the apocalypse, or perhaps its vagueness—what are we sustaining, anyway?—leads you to dismiss its importance altogether.

According to the Corporation for the Northern Rockies, a local organization dedicated to preserving the landscape of the West, sustainability means “living in ways that protect the integrity of the Earth’s biological systems while meeting human economic and social needs.” In other words, sustainability doesn’t mean hiding out in a cave until fat, overconsuming Americans are obliterated by the hole in the ozone layer. Rather, it affirms our need to use common sense in the midst of our modern lives to protect the natural resources that we value.

This need to conserve and preserve is perhaps no more evident than right here in Bozeman. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Gallatin County has been Montana’s fastest-growing since 1990, and its population has nearly doubled since 1980. Look around: every other pickup seemingly bears the name of a contractor, plumber, or electrician on its side, and once-vacant roads are clogged with construction armadas ready to forge new subdivisions on the Montana range.

What can we do to maintain the rustic integrity of a valley that pioneer farmer W.W. Alderson called “one of the most beautiful and picturesque valleys the eye ever beheld”?

One way to preserve open space is through a conservation easement, which protects a landowner’s property from unlimited future development by means of a legally-binding agreement between the landowner and a qualified organization, such as the Gallatin Valley Land Trust. Easements help protect valuable natural resources such as wildlife habitats and riparian corridors, according to GVLT executive director Steve Johnson. The GVLT uses a triage-style approach to identify vulnerable areas for “intensive outreach,” but often struggles to keep up with the rate of growth in the valley. “We hope to be able to grow in response to development,” Johnson says, “but we’re always in danger of falling off the curve.”

The Gallatin County Bond Program has helped landowners and organizations such as the GVLT meet easement costs. The program, twice authorized for $10 million (in 2001 and 2004) pays up to 30 percent of the value of the easement, and “is one of the most successful” programs around, in Johnson’s words. “With the bond program, people knock on our door,” explains Johnson, which makes it easier for the nonprofit GVLT to connect the landowner’s vision with environmental concerns. “We work very hard to understand the landowner’s goals… and we bring to them our understanding of their ground and resources.”

“Main Street to the Mountains” is another of the GVLT’s successes. Currently 45 miles long, the trail system weaves through Bozeman’s neighborhoods and the surrounding open lands, and one day it will link the city with both the Bridger and Gallatin Mountains. “There’s an initiative to develop a safe path connecting Bozeman and Belgrade,” Johnson claims, and the GVLT hopes to include Three Forks in the plan as well.

Sitting in the second-floor cafe of the Bozeman Co-op, Eric Sternberg points across the street to the brand name “Rancher’s Reserve” emblazoned alongside a close-up of a sizzling steak on the side of an eighteen-wheeler. “What rancher is that?” he remarks rhetorically. Whoever he is, Sternberg suggests, “he’s not local…he doesn’t make a difference in my life.”

His comments speak to the reality of mass-produced food in the restaurant industry, an industry about which Sternberg knows quite a bit: he formerly owned the Savory Olive in the Baxter Hotel; now he runs North Fork catering service and will soon open a restaurant under the same name. It is simpler for local restaurateurs to buy food from large companies such as Sysco, he claims, but this modus operandi does not benefit the farmers and ranchers whose legacy in the Gallatin Valley extends much further than that of Wal-Mart or Wendy’s. If we value the open spaces and family-owned ranches that endear us to this place, shouldn’t our food-buying ethic reflect the needs of our agrarian neighbors?

Sternberg certainly thinks so. Along with juggling his catering business and his position as the Co-op’s deli manager, Sternberg serves on the board of directors for the Chef’s Collaborative, a national organization dedicated to promoting sustainable foods and supporting local agriculture. “We foster the relationship between producers and chefs,” he explains. For example, most local ranchers cannot afford to only sell certain cuts of beef, since they cannot do anything with the rest of the cow. The Chef’s Collaborative encourages local buyers to make decisions—such as buying whole beef—that will help sustain small ranchers.

Mary Doyle, the Co-op’s member services coordinator, explains that the Co-op attempts to foster a connection between local producers and customers. Each summer the Co-op invites producers to offer product samples and meet customers in the store, which “personalizes the relationship between the consumer and the farmer,” Doyle argues. Meat and seafood manager Mike Lang says that buying local is something that “customers can relate to, supporting open space–stuff that’s not going to become subdivisions.”

Like it or not, subdivisions seemingly pop up by the dozen in Gallatin County. But we shouldn’t let our conservationist streaks hastily vilify every new development. After all, the local economy has skyrocketed along with recent growth, and, at some point in all of our family histories, someone was a newcomer to this area. Bozeman’s continued growth is inevitable—who wouldn’t want to live in such a beautiful place?

To keep this place and other areas beautiful, however, requires resourceful thinking, something that homebuyers and the construction industry don’t always practice, according to Dan Mott, an area contractor. Mott, a 25-year veteran of the business, is frustrated by the waste he sees in homebuilding. Contrary to the reality, “construction scrap piles should be small,” Mott argues, and he tries to discard as little wood as possible. As materially conservative as builders are, however, they can only be as resourceful as the homebuyers’ decisions allow. Many houses, Mott claims, are unnecessarily large and contain so much exterior glass that the owners waste both natural resources and their own money in heating their homes. And buyers don’t always take the time to look into recycled materials such as concrete, sheet rock, and steel. Instead, they opt for quicker, sometimes cheaper, materials.

There are many environmentally friendly materials available for homebuyers to consider before turning their blueprints into three-dimensional money pits. The Refuge Building Center on East Mendenhall offers green building materials from sunflower-seed particle board to cotton insulation made from blue jean scraps. “It’s all about decreasing the burden on the environment,” says Refuge employee Dan Center. Accordingly, the store selects its materials based on their environmental effects. Recycled goods are a priority, explains Center, displaying tile made from beer bottles. Also, materials must promote sustainability; cork, for example, is harvested from trees, rather than wood, which must be clear-cut and replanted. Toxicity is another factor; most common paints and glues contain Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), earmarked by the EPA for carrying “high pollutant levels.” Instead, Refuge sells nontoxic paints and finishes, which are becoming more available among mainstream paint manufacturers.

Although “green building is growing,” according to Center, for there to be significant improvement in home-building conservation, Dan Mott argues that there needs to be a change in the underlying ethics of purchasing and building a home. In Mott’s words, “Bozeman was [literally and figuratively] built on a gold-rush mentality,” and money and efficiency shouldn’t be the only considerations when building: “We all live here,” Mott claims. “We have to think of the future of the environment for our kids.”

When former oil industry executive George W. Bush claims that “America is addicted to oil” in his State of the Union address, we don’t need Ralph Nader to tell us that our country should seriously explore renewable energy sources. Many Montanans already have. In the solar power industry, for instance, there is “more demand than supply,” explains Barton Churchill, who works for the Bozeman-based Independent Power Systems. According to Churchill’s calculations, the money that a commercial solar customer saves through tax deductions and on energy bills will repay over 90 percent of the solar system cost within ten years, assuming that NorthWestern Energy’s rates remain the same. After the system pays itself off, customers will reap the financial benefits of solar power while doing their part to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels.

Governor Brian Schweitzer recognizes this need for Americans to extricate themselves from dependence on oil and has led a campaign to explore alternatives to oil-based fuels. Synfuel, for example, a gasoline derived from coal or natural gas, can be used in unmodified automobile engines and burns significantly cleaner than its petroleum-based cousin. Montana’s coal supply alone, according to Schweitzer, is “enough fuel to power every American car for decades.” Montana has leapt forward in green energy development with the recently-constructed Judith Gap wind farm, which provides 8 percent of NorthWestern Energy’s power. This project is “just the start of alternative energy development in Montana,” claims Schweitzer. But the governor doesn’t believe that merely discovering alternative energy sources will significantly alter the energy-consumption status quo. Instead, it will take “an immense amount of change in our lifestyle.”

It’s great to get excited about the most recent discovery in green building or the latest alternative to petroleum, and it’s encouraging to read about the preservation of a piece of land or the success of a local ranch. But don’t stop there. Unless we make sustainability part of our consumption ethos, nothing will really change. Only with a determination to preserve and conserve on a personal level will Bozeman and Montana remain beautiful places for future generations. And who doesn’t want that?

The Yellowstone Business Partnership

The Yellowstone Business Partnership (YBP) is a nonprofit organization that seeks to link the businesses and communities of the 25 Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming counties that surround Yellowstone National Park. Through their efforts they aim to link business practices with environmental sustainability more effectively. “Our 200 members are dedicated to preserving a healthy environment and shaping a prosperous and sustainable future for communities in the Yellowstone-Teton Region,” says Jan Brown, executive director of the YBP. Some of their Bozeman members include MacKenzie River Pizza Company, Great Rocky Mountain Toy Company, Edward Jones, Chico Hot Springs, the Sonoran Institute, and Insty Prints. Their main motivation for joining is the shared belief that the Northern Rockies’ economy is inextricably tied to the region’s environmental quality.

The YBP has several progressive and highly necessary programs underway that are made possible through grant monies and individual support. Their Regional Leadership Program seeks to provide the skills, information, and inspiration necessary to keep community and business leaders in the know about linking environmental and economic sustainability. YBP also seeks to safeguard the region’s recreation resources through support of conservation measures and by investigating new investment approaches. Their recent “Outdoor Recreation Prospectus” report explores how better intercommunity transportation and trail systems will benefit both tourism and environmental conservation at the same time.

YBP also researches ways to address regional growth by providing sustainable solutions for the complex challenges faced by linking different jurisdictions. Their UnCommon Sense program seeks to accomplish that goal. Through this two-year program of workshops covering waste management, energy conservation, buying local/sustainable goods, transportation, and social responsibility, businesses will develop their understanding of how to run more efficiently with less impact on our natural resources. The YBP also works to develop regional development standards and transportation management.

Through their efforts the YBP refreshingly preserves the sense of place that is this region’s heritage, while optimistically confronting the unavoidable fact that the environment is the cornerstone of our economy and that its conservation is essential to the region’s economic success. Check out their impressive and inspiring work at, write them at P.O. Box 7337, Bozeman, MT, 59771, or call (406)522-7809 or (800) 522-9155.

-Ada Montague