Bridger’s Battle for Sustainable Slopes

Ashley Phelan

As the ongoing climate crisis rages and becomes a more prevalent concern in our society, it is important to consider different approaches and methods to foster sustainability. In efforts to try and repair the damage being done to the ecosystem, it’s helpful to remember that this is a communal effort. With the Rocky Mountains as our backyard, winter activities are plentiful, and widely enjoyed throughout Montana, there are over fourteen ski areas in the state. Within the Gallatin Valley, we are fortunate to have access to Bridger Bowl, a sizable resort attracting people, near and far, like moths to a flame. The skiing and snowboarding culture in this area of the country is huge; we love our powdered mountains, and we want to take care of them. Bridger has made a commitment to the preservation of the area, organizing research programs and projects to maintain the vitality of our mountains. As it takes a team effort to find solutions for climate change, it is important for us as a community to understand and engage with local, ongoing sustainability programs.

A Bozeman local, Bonnie Hickey has worked for Bridger Bowl Ski Resort for over 30 years, and is currently its Sustainability Director. This position includes the responsibility of limiting the impact that winter sports activities have on the mountain. There are several factors to consider when working on maintaining the natural land, as well as fulfilling the enjoyment of guests at the ski resort. “Many initiatives are ongoing projects, as opposed to one-time equipment upgrades or installations,” explains Bonnie. “Programs get underway, then we seek ways to make them more effective. Ongoing environmental projects include the weed control program, forest health and habitat maintenance, and wildfire mitigation strategies.” Environmental concerns vary from snowmaking, energy usage, waste production, and general grooming.

Bridger Bowl has received accolades and awards for its work in environmentally focused initiatives. As a partner of the National Ski Area Association (NSAA), Bridger contributes to its research, and to gathering statistical data within the ski industry. The NSAA works toward the goal of supporting partners that operate and sustain outdoor winter recreation. The research and data collected by the association is applied to help ski areas thrive, while making the least negative impact on the surrounding environment. The National Ski Area Association created a voluntary program called the Climate Challenge, which most partners commit to. The goal of this Climate Challenge is to decrease emissions of greenhouse gas (GHG). Not only does this project help to minimize damage to the natural environment surrounding the mountain resort, it also helps partners save money and energy.

An amazing program that was developed at Bridger is the Green Team. While Bonnie is still working on expanding the program to generate further outreach, the group is mostly comprised of department heads, and employees with specialized skills. This is a team that works with and was created by Bridger Bowl Ski Resort, though these are two separate entities. The resort and Green Team address different environmental concerns.

Actions taken at Bridger concerning sustainability are divided into focus areas of energy, waste, education, and outreach. Ski resorts require the use of a large amount of energy for their facilities. Taking into consideration heat, chair lifts, lodges, dining, lighting, and more, it all adds up. Northwestern Energy provided a grant to Bridger, which is being invested towards their clean energy solar project. The use of solar energy will help the resort reduce its carbon footprint and reliance on acquiring energy from fossil fuels.

Where people flock, their trash has a tendency to tag along for the ride. Bridger Bowl attracts many, many outdoor enthusiasts, averaging around 2,200 visitors a day throughout the season. It is the responsibility of the people working at the mountain to find efficient ways to manage waste. This kind of work entails careful planning and organization. Bridger Bowl has reduced a massive amount of landfill waste by instituting a recycling program and, in 2020, composting.

Educating the community and raising awareness is one of the most important steps in taking care of our planet. Bridger Bowl Ski Resort supports this cycle through its focus on community outreach. From donations and food drives to the annual RaptorFest, there are constant efforts to strengthen their connection with the Bozeman community and share a sense of appreciation for the land we live on.

How can Bozeman locals get involved in lending a helping hand to this hotspot? As Bonnie has explained, there are a number of ways to help, including utilizing reusable bottles and water stations, cleaning up after oneself, and carpooling or using alternative transportation. Bridger Bowl provides a variety of resources when it comes to contributing to communal sustainability practices. Through partnering with the Streamline Bus system, riders wanting to hit the bowl for a day can rely on a fare-free ride. It is highly encouraged to carpool or take other means of transportation to the mountain. Bridger established a Park and Ride lot, by the Fairgrounds, creating an easy location to meet up and find rides heading towards the canyon. “You can also follow and support the many regional organizations that work to ensure we continue to enjoy clean air and water, and organizations such as Montana Renewable Energy Association and Montana Environmental Information Center,” says Bonnie. “This provides education and advocacy for business schools, and community.” Also, did you know that you can sign up for their commuter challenge, making you eligible to win a seasons pass for 2023/24? You can find more information on Bridger’s website.

During the month of April, Bridger Bowl Resort hosts the Gallatin Valley Earth Day event. Join this festive celebration, filled with live music, events, and libations; along with the fun, you’ll learn more about our planet and how we can be in service to Mother Nature.

“Everyone loves to be at a ski area, because you are around lots of smiling faces; I love seeing families enjoy a day on the hill and knowing that I’m helping to contribute to the ski area’s longevity,” says Bonnie. “The other thing I love is that I am networking with people who are as passionate about our environment and the outdoors as I am, and many of those individuals are immensely knowledgeable in the specialties, so I am always learning.”

Bridger Bowl is well known for treating every visitor like family. Family takes care of each other. By understanding more about ongoing programs addressing environmental concerns and putting in extra effort, we can reach new realizations. It feels good to be a part of something bigger. Bridger Bowl is a ski resort for the community, and works to seek improvement for our future to ski another winter. So make sure that, as a valued guest, you are actively working to share the load of responsibility when it comes to taking care of the resort. Who cares if it takes an extra minute or two? This is OUR mountain. If we want to achieve something, let’s take after Miss Bonnie Hickey, and put our best foot forward when facing a challenge!