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How are cities and tribes responding to climate change?

 A sign in Pablo, MT on the Flathead Reservation
Josh Burnham
A sign in Pablo, MT on the Flathead Reservation

Austin Amestoy: Welcome to The Big Why, a series from Montana Public Radio where we find out what we can discover together. I'm your host, Austin Amestoy. This is a show about listener-powered reporting. We'll answer questions, big or small, about anything under the Big Sky. By Montanans, for Montana, this is The Big Why.

Today, we're resuming our series about how Montana is responding to one of the most challenging issues of our time. And joining me with more is MTPR reporter Ellis Juhlin Hello, Ellis.

Ellis Juhlin: Hey, Austin. Glad to be back. This is part two of our Big Why series, fueled by a question from Huson-based listener Cassandra Rideg about climate change.

Cassandra Rideg: I heard a lot of hype, but I haven't seen a lot of action.

Austin Amestoy: Right, last time we talked about Montana's 2020 climate plan, which was more aspirational than anything. In fact, it's been shelved, right?

Ellis Juhlin: Yeah, there isn't an active climate plan. And people can listen back to that episode on But the state is one of many governments that can have an impact on climate efforts. So for this episode, we'll be looking at how tribal nations and Montana cities are pushing for change.

Montana News What is Montana doing to address climate change: Part 1 Ellis Juhlin

Austin Amestoy: Cities and tribes. Well, let's start with the cities then, Ellis. What are they doing to address climate change?

Ellis Juhlin: Several big cities have their own climate action plans, including benchmarks they're hoping to hit every few years. Like in Missoula, the city plans to cut emissions in half by 2030 and be carbon neutral by 2025.

Austin Amestoy: Wow. That's a pretty ambitious goal. What's the city doing to reach it?

Ellis Juhlin: Well, I talked with Missoula city climate planners, and a big component to achieving carbon neutrality is supporting electrification. That's a pretty broad term that means moving away from the fossil fuels that power our lives and towards a cleaner, all electric energy system. And that means energy efficient options like electric vehicles or heat pump technology. Now, to actually see what electrification looks like, we're going into the nearly century old home of Missoula resident Abby Huseth.

Abby Huseth: A 1930s house comes with its own challenges when you think about upgrades. And yeah, so come on down. The sort of typical, funky basement.

Ellis Juhlin: The basement's dug out with just a bit of standing room, but we could peer over some cinder blocks and into the original crawl space. Down there, she showed me their heat pump water heater that they put in several years ago. It was their first electrification upgrade. Heat pumps, she said.

Abby: They work sort of like backwards air conditioners.

Ellis Juhlin: They took advantage of federal rebates at the time to install the water heater, and then invested in solar panels to power it. And the setup worked great at first.

Abby: We had kids, and life changed and we were doing more laundry. So we added four more solar panels. Because we really wanted the solar to cover the entire annual electricity usage.

Austin Amestoy: Well, that sounds like a pretty sweet deal. Ellis, you said the Huseths used a federal rebate to install their heater, right? Are we seeing any offers like that in Montana?

Ellis Juhlin: Yeah, Missoula now has a rebate program where they'll give residents of Missoula County up to $575 for a heat pump water heater. Helena and Bozeman have similar programs, too. And this, city officials told me, is a central way that they're trying to help reach their climate goals. By making it easier and cheaper for locals to invest in that same sort of technology the Huseths bought

Austin Amestoy: Okay, well, that covers Missoula, but are other cities in Montana taking similar steps?

Ellis Juhlin: Yes, Bozeman, Whitefish, Helena and Red Lodge all have climate action plans of their own with similar goals to Missoula's. Like we discussed last time, state-level policies prohibit cities from regulations that could, say, prohibit natural gas and new construction, or mandate energy efficient and electrical appliances. So, cities and counties are doing what they can. And that looks like these kind of opt-in programs like rebates. At the same time, Missoula and Bozeman are working with the state's largest utility to try and add more renewable energy into the electrical grid as well.

Austin Amestoy: Got it. That's one half of our conversation today. But what about tribal nations in Montana? Are they acting on climate change?

Ellis Juhlin: Well, many tribes in the state are leaders in climate adaptation efforts. As sovereign governments, tribal nations have more options than cities to take actions that could address climate change. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai (CSKT) tribes were one of the first in the United States to make a comprehensive climate plan. Mike Durglo Jr. oversaw the creation of the tribe's Climate Change Strategic Plan back in 2013. And he told me that the tribe sees the impacts of climate change all around them.

Mike Durglo Jr.: We used to watch for certain things that told you when. When it was time to go dig bitterroot, when it was time to go get our husks. Things happen in the landscape that told us what to do at what times. And those things are all changing.

Ellis Juhlin: They've actually revised the plan twice since its creation to account for how rapidly things are changing.

Austin Amestoy: Wow. Two revisions in a decade. That's a pretty remarkable pace. Are the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes using that plan to take action?

Ellis Juhlin: Yes. Managing natural resources is a huge part of the tribe's adaptation efforts. That comes in all kinds of forms. Among other work, I mentioned the tribe is doing a lot to specifically improve native trout habitat and replanting whitebark pines, a high alpine tree threatened by climate change. Both of these are important to ecosystems, but they also play a really big role in the tribe's history and culture. Another big component of the tribe's climate work that Durglo is especially proud of is involving young people. He started the Eagles program, where students from across the Flathead Reservation can form groups where they work together to design and carry out sustainability projects. Things like water bottle filling stations or hydroponic growing systems.

Austin Amestoy: You know, I'm struck by how much on the groundwork CSKT is doing to mitigate climate impacts. It seems like the tribes are really focusing on how climate change is impacting the natural world, while cities are zeroed in on cutting emissions that accelerate climate change.

Ellis Juhlin: Definitely. And his work has spread nationally. In fact, the secretary of the interior, Deb Haaland, recently invited him to serve on her new advisory Council for Climate Adaptation and Science.

Austin Amestoy: Are other tribes in Montana following CSKT's lead?

Ellis Juhlin: Yes. The Blackfeet Tribe has a similar comprehensive plan modeled after CSKT's. Gerald Wagner is the director of the Blackfeet Tribe's environmental office.

Gerald Wagner: We are the the poster children, Native Americans are, of adapting. Ever since Columbus stepped foot over here we've been adapting.

Ellis Juhlin: And the Blackfeet Tribe's Climate Change Adaptation Plan was created in 2016. Like CSKT's, they also focus on managing natural resources. Things like mimicking beaver dams.

Gerald Wagner: Trying to hold water in these times of drought.

Ellis Juhlin: Other recent work has focused on lowering greenhouse gas emissions by reducing waste on the reservation. And Wagner hopes he can expand that to other tribes as well.

Gerald Wagner: It's an exciting time and I'm just hoping that we can follow through and keep the momentum going.

Austin Amestoy: So the foundation is set, but what's next?

Ellis Juhlin: Well, I've been reporting on this big pot of federal money, billions of dollars, in fact, that the government is giving out to states and tribes to combat climate change. The Blackfeet Tribe, as well as the Chippewa, Cree, Northern Cheyenne and Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux tribes are all in the process of writing plans that would make them eligible for that money. And they could put it to use addressing the changing climate on their own reservations. In fact, Wagner told me that tribes are working together to join forces, and also partner with the state to potentially secure a significant federal investment that would make an even bigger impact than any single project could on its own.

Austin Amestoy: I have to say, it's pretty refreshing to hear some good news about climate action. Ellis, thanks for sharing this reporting with us.

Ellis Juhlin: It definitely is. And in the next episode in our series, we'll be leaving the government behind to learn about how people and organizations are taking action on climate change.

Austin Amestoy: Now we want to know what makes you curious about Montana. Submit your questions below. Find us wherever you listen to podcasts and help others find the show by sharing it and leaving a review. Let's see what we can discover together!

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Ellis Juhlin
Austin Amestoy