Budding Prospects 

Sowing a sustaiznable future for the Missoula Valley

Good ideas are like the seeds of a dandelion swept away in a stiff breeze, taking flight and germinating in places far from where they began. Consider, for example, the familiar words of 16th century British poet John Donne, who once wrote, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main…” Though the word “sustainability” as we use it today may have been unfamiliar to Donne, its underlying concept was not. Even then it was understood that what touches one of us touches us all, and the pebble that breaks the surface of the pond sends its ripples in all directions.

So, in honor of Earth Day 2002, the Independent looks at a few of the ideas of sustainability that have broken the surface in the Missoula Valley. What follows is by no means a comprehensive list of all those ideas or the countless people who are working hard to give them life. Instead, these are broader strokes that cover the areas where sustainable ideas are taking root. We hope that they serve not as an end unto themselves, but as an impetus to learn and get involved in some of the work that is being done to build a sustainable future for Missoula and beyond.

Getting on a lean road diet

Each year, automobiles use an average of 40 percent of the oil consumed in the United States. That number is not surprising when you consider that in Missoula alone we drive our cars approximately 1.5 million miles every day! Forty percent of the trips we take in our cars each day are two miles or less in length. With numbers like these, there is great potential for progress in curbing our driving habits.

For decades, Americans have been largely unwilling to challenge our addiction to the automobile. Even many health and environment conscious Americans are satisfied with the symbolic gesture of putting a “Restore the Earth” bumper sticker on their cars, while continuing to drive everyday, rather than parking and walking, riding a bicycle or taking a bus a few days each week. “Sustainable transportation,” as one local sustainability advocate puts it, “is not a sexy issue, like saving grizzly bears.” Yet, with passage in the U.S. House of Representatives of a bill to allow oil drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, it’s clear that supporting sustainable transportation initiatives is the un-sexy side of a sexy issue. In the post-war industrial boom of the 1940s city planners and engineers moved away from the traditional urban designs of compact neighborhoods, closely knit boulevards and “street networks,” surrounding a city center where residents could shop, eat, work and socialize. The automobile made it possible to live further away from the services provided by a city. Industry was booming and cities were often polluted. The suburbs offered the promise of cleaner surroundings, larger lots for houses and more peace and quiet. With the help of the car, suburban street designs became longer, with fewer intersections and fewer sidewalks. Strictly segregated business and residential zoning became the rule of thumb and cars took up the slack. Suburban sprawl became our way of life.

But as cars became faster, more powerful and ubiquitous, they demanded more of everything: more space, more attention, more public money. Somewhere along the way we forgot that cars don’t have communities, people do. People on foot or on bicycles don’t need wider, faster roads, cars do. Many Missoula residents, long aware of the route we are taking, now believe that the time has come to shift the discussion. Do we want to nurture sustainable transportation alternatives in our community, or do we really want to put the cart before the horse, allowing the needs of the automobile to drag us by the nose into an ill-considered future?

In the last 10 years, traffic has become an inescapable problem in the Missoula Valley. We can respond to the increasing number of cars on our roads by expanding the infrastructure that supports their use, by widening roads and building bypasses, the predominant engineering solution to traffic congestion since the mid 1940s. But with wider, faster roads come other problems. Four-lane roads are dangerous for pedestrians to cross. Bus stations along them can be difficult for riders to access. Rather than encouraging people to walk or ride bicycles, wider roads squelch that healthy impulse. Lane swapping and aggressive driving on multi-lane roads cause stress for both drivers and pedestrians. And adding lanes often induces heavier traffic, only compounding the original problem. Having seen these problems arise after the expansion of Reserve Street from two lanes to five lanes, many residents of Missoula now wonder if creating more road surface to accommodate more cars is any solution at all.

Bob Giordano, who has worked with sustainable transportation issues full time for the last six years, is founder of Freecycles and MIST (the Missoula Institute for Sustainable Transportation). Freecycles repairs and distributes bicycles as a free service, helping people to view bicycles as a sustainable community resource. MIST is an educational, research and advocacy organization whose mission is to “work with communities to help build safe, efficient, cost effective, environmentally sound, and fair transportation systems.”

Theories of sustainable transportation assert that everything we do affects other areas of life. Our choice of automobiles as our primary mode of transportation creates waves of corresponding changes. Our choices concerning appropriate road sizes, speed limits, and how to prevent accidents at intersections affect our quality of life. Improving transportation options and street designs can enhance a town in previously unimaginable ways. But in order for road designs to successfully meet the needs of the communities through which they run, planners and engineers must also be aware of a broader range of variables than just those needed to resolve the problem of vehicular congestion.

Building a transportation system that enhances a community involves complex interactions between land use policies and transportation alternatives, and the views of city planners and engineers are slowly beginning to reflect a more holistic awareness of those community needs. In a sustainable system, pedestrians are not adjuncts to considerations of transportation. They are primary. Walking is the most sustainable mode of travel there is. Walking and bicycling promote community wellbeing as well as good health. Community depends in large part on interactions within the neighborhood. Over time, these relationships become the fabric of a community, creating a sense of belonging to a place and an affinity among the people who live there. Spontaneous meetings with neighbors, friends and associates encourage the development of equally spontaneous feelings of trust and fellowship.

Sustainable planning, for example, might recommend the development of car-less streets in downtown areas, “pedestrian plazas” where people can interact in quieter surroundings. Another option is the creation of traffic-free “green-streets” in residential areas. Movable barriers, which still allow the passage of bicycles, strollers, wheelchairs, etc., can be placed at points halfway down each block to prevent through-traffic while allowing residents to park in front of their houses. Networks of “green streets” can connect important destination points, especially for children, like parks, schools and playgrounds.

Another important tool in a sustainable transportation planning kit is the “road diet,” a shorthand expression that describes the conversion of wide, unsafe, and difficult to cross roadways into leaner, safer, more efficient streets by converting extra lanes into multi-modal and more productive uses. Without the lane swapping that characterizes four-lane roads, the more uniform traffic flow of a three-lane road (one through lane in either direction and a left turn lane) can significantly reduce road conflicts and accidents without increasing overall trip times. The extra fourth lane can be divided into two bike lanes on either side of the road, taking bicyclists out of areas of potential conflict with motorists. Traffic circles in combination with “road diets” can facilitate smoother traffic flow and prevent the extremely dangerous “T-bone” crashes that occur at intersections with stoplights.

Because the beneficial results of “road diets” seem counterintuitive, they often face stiff resistance from many motorists who fear that their trip times will be increased. Establishing experimental road conversions are sometimes necessary to convince people of the effectiveness of the “road diet” concept. The Missoula County Engineers office is hoping to set up an experimental road conversion along a section of Broadway east of Russell Street sometime this year. If all goes well it is possible we may see a slimmer, safer Broadway in the near future.

Missoula is currently rewriting its 20-year transportation plan. The plan is a working document that will guide the projects of Missoula’s engineers. “Whatever it says in the plan, that’s what we pour,” says Missoula city engineer Steve King. “It is important for people to know that.” The results of this plan will affect the Missoula community for decades to come. A consulting firm, URS Corp., hired to research and design the plan, will soon have an easily accessible Web page on the Missoula city Web site (www.ci.missoula.mt.us). Missoula residents who want information or to comment on the plan can visit the web page, or send an e-mail (Missoula_transplan@urscorp.com) or call URS (402-334-8182). Tom Dailey

The sustainability business

Poke through the “goodie box” at the headquarters of Loken Builders and you will get a pretty good idea of what these folks are up to.

There is a piece of roof tile made from recycled computer parts mixed with rubber, insulation made from ground up blue jeans, countertop tiles made from old bottles, and bricks that are 70 percent clay and 30 percent sewer sludge.

Loken Builders is often mentioned both locally and nationally as an example of quintessential sustainable construction. By using salvaged materials, aggressively recycling, and focusing on energy conservation, the Missoula construction firm has made environmental soundness its business. Owner Steve Loken has become something of a “green building” guru, often being called upon to share his philosophy and advice.

This week Loken shared his tips and inspiration with Missoula’s Sustainable Business Council. The council is a newly formed coalition of local businesses trying to find ways to balance profitability with ecological sustainability.

“The Council’s purpose is to promote the economic benefits of a clean and healthful environment,” reads the Sustainable Business Council’s mission statement. “To educate businesses, organizations, and individuals about efficient resource use, and to facilitate the adoption of economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable business practices.”

Loken Builders is held up as an example of sustainable business in action because it creates environmentally responsible buildings, but also because it has made sustainable business practices pay off financially. The Loken office on Dakota Street features furniture made from recycled wood and carpets made from old tires. Loken himself says that recycling has allowed his company to reduce its dump fees to BFI by 60 percent. Using salvaged wood on construction projects is also a good deal, he says, because the wood is typically first-cut lumber from many years ago, and so he gets higher quality supplies for less money.

On the job at a construction site in Lolo last week, Loken explains how he applies sustainable principles to a typical project.

“All the exterior wood trim is salvaged,” Loken says. The siding and foundation are also made with reused materials. Sometimes the materials have their own stories and histories, like the wood from the rafters salvaged from old barns in the Missoula area. The decking is made from old plastic milk jugs.

Loken points out the large piles of scrap materials.

“We’re also trying to minimize our job waste by separating glass and metals,” he says. He winces when he sees some metal scraps in the trash, and later asks one of his workers to try to separate all the pieces of metal, no matter how small.

In the garage, Loken places wall studs farther apart and by using mill ends and scraps instead of virgin wood, he is able to build this house using 20 percent less lumber than more conventional methods. Less wood also means more insulation and better fuel conservation.

Loken walks through the site, waving his hand briefly to point out the thermally efficient windows.

The concrete floor has been tinted with a mild acid so that it will not need any other covering (which might involve a toxic glue). Loken then displays a dark corner room that houses a 90 percent energy efficient boiler. It is very small and does not blow out “asthma-inducing crapola” like most boilers, he says.

Peter Bushman has done construction for Loken Builders for two and a half years. Crews working on an environmentally-sound house like this allows for more creativity, he says.

“There’s a big difference between a tract home where a carpenter builds the same house five times in a row,” Bushman says. “Here there’s a lot of communication. That’s what I like about it.”

Kent Saxton has been with Loken for about a month. He took a break from working on the second-floor rafters and called over his dog, Buddy. “A normal construction crew doesn’t care about anything. All they want to do is get it up and get it up quick because that’s how they get their money,” Saxton says.

Saxton used to live in Utah where he worked for another socially-conscious construction crew. He was in Missoula at Bernice’s Bakery one day thumbing through the Green Pages when he read about Loken Builders. He sought out the job and moved to Missoula.

“I wouldn’t build new houses if we weren’t using materials like this,” Saxton says. “If we’re not using them we’re just continuing the same problems.”

Loken says that balancing his environmental ethics with the desires of his clients can sometimes be a delicate task. Even though people seek out his company because they are conscientious, often they still want things that will harm the environment.

“The public thinks the environment is going down the tubes,” Loken says. “They want to do the right thing but they don’t know what it is.”

Loken takes in the house and its rustic wooded surroundings with a sweep of his arm.

“Is building a house like this out in the forest a good thing from my perspective? No,” he admits. “Would building a cluster of well-insulated houses closer to Missoula be a more environmentally responsible alternative? Yes.”

As long as people want to live out of town and commute, though, the houses will keep going up, so Loken says he wants to get them built as responsibly as possible. This house, he says, has a responsible owner and a good architect, and so he has been able to make it very energy efficient. It is well-insulated, it uses passive solar energy, it is bermed into the hillside to use natural earth heat, and the owner has worked to thin trees for fire prevention and to restore native grassland.

“If we can just tweak our conventional practice by 10 percent, that’s a big change,” Loken says. “If we can just push the envelope with each house, we’ll be slowly making a difference.” Dan Laidman

The Grizzly footprint

At noon on Earth Day at the University of Montana Oval, UM President George Dennison will sign the Talloires Declaration. The brainchild of 22 university presidents, rectors and vice chancellors from around the world, the Talloires Declaration was born on the Tufts University campus in Talloires, France, in autumn of 1990. It consists of 10 principles to help universities along the path of promoting ecological sustainability.

Currently, more than 300 university campuses around the world have signed the Talloires Declaration (pronounced TAHL-wah). UM will be the first signatory in the Northwest.

By signing the Talloires Declaration, President Dennison is committing UM to creating an environmental sustainable campus, creating educational programs, curricula and partnerships for teaching and promoting sustainability and environmental literacy; conserving resources, promoting recycling, waste reduction, and a whole host of other ambitious goals.

Cynics might call them pie in the sky, and skeptics may wonder how these ambitious declarations will evolve from words engraved on a plaque into active change on the ground.

The movement to get UM to sign the Talloires Declaration was driven primarily by the work of three graduate students in the UM Environmental Studies Department (EVST): Heather Higinbotham, John Bateman, and Betsy Hands, who in turn learned about the Talloires Declaration in Neva Hassenein’s Environmental Organizing class. With Dennison’s blessing, they began designing what is now the UM Sustainable Campus Committee (SCC), which consists of three representatives each from UM’s faculty, staff, administrators, and students. The SCC is charged with implementing Talloires Declaration by establishing programs that produce expertise in environmental management, sustainable economic development and an environmental literacy curricula. Their first task was drafting a document recommending that Dennison sign the Talloires Declaration. He quickly agreed.

“It’s good to have ‘stretch goals’ that you have to reach towards,” says Dennison. “That means you may fall short from time to time. But that’s better than having goals that are too easy.” Initially the SCC will be provided with a small budget to cover the operations necessary to come up with specific recommendations. If a recommendation can be implemented at a reasonable cost—or more ambitiously, at a cost benefit—then it will likely fly.

Many local, cutting-edge voices in the environmental movement, such as UM Economist Tom Powers, argue that economic goals are not inconsistent with environmental goals. If the school can save money, while simultaneously reducing its “ecological footprint,” everybody is a winner.

An “ecological footprint” is a yardstick for assessing the impact upon the Earth’s resources by an individual, an institution, or even an entire nation, by calculating the area of the earth required to support that entity. Based on the ecological footprint model, it would take ten Planet Earths to provide every person on the planet with an “American” lifestyle. Optimism dictates that instilling students with the intellectual and practical habits of sustainability will not only reduce the ecological footprint of UM, but will also send graduates out into the world like seeds of change, ready to take root and spread the habits of sustainability wherever they land.

Dennison has a history of supporting campus initiatives when they demonstrate broad support from the campus community. For example, he matches recycling funds donated by faculty and staff through a voluntary payroll deduction program.

Oftentimes, before the financial payoff of a sustainable initiative can be realized, a sizable up-front investment is required, such as is the case with solar panels and other forms of sustainable building. Dennison draws a comparison to the Americans with Disabilities Act: “We have an obligation that is imposed upon us to ensure building access to disabled persons. This is a concern with any new construction, and we have architects who make that a priority when designing new buildings. But we haven’t made as much progress in renovating the existing structures. That takes a lot more money. But whenever we have an opportunity, we do it.”

Other times, inexpensive moves can be made that simply require patience for the payoff to trickle in and add up. Watson points to water conservation as one example.

“Watering at night, rather than during the day, will save a lot of water right away. The next step would be, any time a piece of lawn gets torn up, or for whatever reason new grass gets planted, to use a more drought-tolerant variety of turf that needs less water than the Kentucky bluegrass that we now have,” she says. “You would probably never be able to talk people into ripping out the entire existing lawn and replacing it all at once, but by doing it piecemeal like this, we can slowly achieve our goal, while demonstrating the savings in terms of water cost.”

Watson’s vision brings to mind a demonstration of drought-resistant grasses on display in Santa Fe, N.M., where different varieties of grass, with different water needs, are planted in a rainbow pattern upon the ground, and given a uniform amount of water. As the summer progresses, the rainbow changes color like a kaleidoscopic spectrum of yellow and green. The day of reckoning for the success of the Talloires Declaration will come on future Earth Days, when, says SCC student member Betsy Hands, “We will give an annual report on what we accomplished in the past year, and what we hope to accomplish next year. And so that will be a time when the accountability of both the community and the university itself will be tested.” Ari LeVaux

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