Tag Archive for: Resilient Butte

By: Rylie Yaeger, VISTA Volunteer

When I lived in Beijing, people would always ask me how the pollution was. I told them two things: the Communist Party planted trees to stop sandstorms from entering the capital. Second, they also moved factories away from the city, yet didn’t shut them down. Despite all this, the Chinese capital still experiences terrible air quality for periods of the year. This past summer I moved home to Minnesota and was amazed to watch everyone taking pictures of the smoky haze drifting east from California, Washington, and Oregon and south from Canada.  While this was new for them, I was reminded of Beijing. A picturesque lake, glazed over with a harsh bite of reality: the wildfire smoke had finally reached the boundary waters of Northern Minnesota. Little did I know that I would soon move to the largest EPA superfund site in the United States, Butte, Montana where they have been dealing with these environmental issues for decades. 

A hundred years ago, at the height of a copper mining boom, Butte was the largest city between Chicago and the West. After most of the mines shut down, Butte’s population plummeted to only a fraction. Now, the community is growing again after decades of environmental restoration.  

Butte’s future will be shaped by opportunities and challenges related to climate change. Butte is seen by private industry as a good location for clean energy development with recent proposals to develop solar, green hydrogen, and energy storage systems. However, the community faces climate challenges that threaten to undo much of the environmental work of recent years. Community leaders are eager to understand the challenges and achieve the opportunities by developing a climate adaptation and green energy plan. Thus, our project was born—Resilient Butte. 

Butte-Silver Bow County, Montana Technological University, and the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) are partnering to create a Butte Sustainability and Resilience Plan. Unlike us Minnesotans, Montana has been battling drought and wildfire risk for years—risks that are only getting worse.  

One priority is to protect the Basin Creek watershed, the main source of Butte’s drinking water. Vast areas of beetle-killed lodgepole pine in the watershed are at risk of burning in a wildfire, which could fill the reservoir with sediments and plug water treatment filters. Even further, many Butte residents live in old buildings without proper insulation and weatherization, which pose health risks from rising temperatures and wildfire smoke. Those are just a couple issues we want to tackle with this new plan. But our plan isn’t just about the negatives. 

Butte has a rich history. It is well-positioned and has the potential to become a fantastic renewable energy hub. Butte industrial products, including silicon gas and copper, are essential for solar energy. In recent years, Butte has been approached by large-array solar and green hydrogen energy developers, but county officials haven’t yet developed land-use plans to accommodate these new uses.  Meanwhile, the county is eyeing infrastructure investments through the U.S. Department of Energy to develop clean energy projects on former mine lands. The Resilient Butte project will provide an economic development guide for the city-county.  

With our first steps towards Resilient Butte, we’d like to invite the residents in Butte to participate in a survey that can be found at: ResilientButte.org. We would like to also invite you to connect with Resilient Butte on Facebook and Instagram and at our website Resilient Butte. Get involved and help shape Butte’s climate adaptation and green energy plan! 

Butte-Silver Bow is partnering with the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) and Montana Technological University to develop a community Sustainability and Resilience Plan. County residents are invited to provide input, learn about the issues, and sign up for project working groups.

The bipartisan infrastructure bill recently passed by Congress represents the nation’s biggest investment in clean energy and providing local communities with the tools to fight climate disruption. These investments have the potential to boost local economic development tied to new sources of energy and to help communities prepare for climate change impacts such as drought, wildfire, and heat waves.

“There are going to be opportunities to boost our economy through new energy development, and Butte is well situated to benefit,” said Butte-Silver Bow Chief Executive J.P. Gallagher. “But we need to do this in a way that works best for our community, and that means planning ahead.” He said that this would include identifying potential locations and infrastructure needs for renewable energy developments such as solar, energy storage systems, or green hydrogen industries. Community engagement will help inform updates to BSB’s zoning code and the county’s Comprehensive Plan.

Gallagher also announced that BSB will participate in a National Science Foundation pilot project for community-based climate adaptation planning. Community workshops will be scheduled in the spring to identify critical community issues and develop local solutions. Several potential issues have been discussed by the three project partners, but priority focus areas will be guided by public input.

BSB residents are encouraged to take an online community survey to prioritize issues of concern, identify development opportunities, and sign up to get involved in the Resilient Butte project. The 5-minute survey is available at www.surveymonkey.com/r/ResilientButte.

One issue of concern is the health risk to vulnerable groups from increasingly smoky summers and the future likelihood of severe heat waves, such as the one that killed hundreds of people last summer in Washington and Oregon. Another vulnerability is growing wildfire risk to Butte’s municipal watersheds in Basin Creek, Moulton and the Big Hole. Concerns also have been raised about the long-term stability of reclamation areas on the Butte Hill as hotter, drier summers desiccate sites that have been revegetated. Butte also may experience population growth as people move away from climate impacts elsewhere, such as megafires in California or coastal flooding.

The adaptation workshops in late spring will be informed by the Montana Climate Assessment, developed by Montana universities to evaluate climate trends and projected impacts to Montana agriculture, forests, water resources, and public health. The workshops will be led by EcoAdapt, a nonprofit in Washington state, and Virginia Tech University, which jointly received a National Science Foundation award to determine the best approach for community-based planning for climate solutions. Butte is among eight communities across the nation selected to participate in this pilot project.

Montana Tech faculty and students will provide technical expertise and research to support the project. The project will tap Tech’s expertise in restoration ecology, environmental engineering, and watershed education. Engineering students will assist with a community energy assessment and greenhouse gas inventory. On March 23, the Montana Tech Public Lecture Series will feature Dr. Cathy Whitlock, a Montana State University Regents Professor and lead author of the Montana Climate Assessment.

“Montana Tech appreciates the opportunity to partner with Butte-Silver Bow, NCAT and our community to support a healthy and prosperous future,” said Chancellor Les Cook. “There are issues that we need to address, and there are new opportunities that we would be wise to consider.”

NCAT will coordinate community participation and educational programs, said Executive Director Steve Thompson. “NCAT provides technical assistance across the nation to develop practical solutions in support of community sustainability, regenerative agriculture, and clean energy. We have offices in 10 states, but Butte has been our headquarters for 46 years. We look forward to supporting our hometown through the Resilient Butte project.” 

NCAT AmeriCorps VISTA member Rylie Yaeger will be help coordinate opportunities for local residents to get involved in the planning process. “We’re inviting community members to participate in conversations about sustainability, climate resilience and economic development opportunities for Butte,” Yaeger said.

To learn more or get involved, contact Rylie Yaeger at Ryliey@ncat.org or 494-6644. Or find Resilient Butte on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/resilientbutte or Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/resilient_butte.