In late summer, 1998, having just completed a 50 mile, 3 day canoe trip down the Wild and Scenic Missouri River in North Central Montana we overheard a river outfitter lamenting to his customers:
“We residents who live and work along the banks of the Missouri fear that unless something is done now there will be no groves of cottonwoods and green ash lining the river banks. The overgrazing by cattle of the tree seedlings and the beaver devastation of the old growth will render this whole portion of the river barren in the next 20-30 years. Somebody has to change that and change it now.”
Within hours of hearing that environmental forecast, we decided that we would be that “somebody” who could make a difference in helping preserve riparian systems on the Missouri River.
Within a few months we formed Sunburst Unlimited, Inc. as a 501(c)3 riparian restoration Corporation. We wrote our mission statement with assistance from our board, management staff, and the BLM’s river biologists. By the following summer we had engaged land owners, outifitters, local canoe club members, and BLM volunteers in planting cottonwood, green ash, and understory seedlings and saplings along the banks and in campgrounds on the Wild and Scenic Missouri. We also wrapped chicken wire around the trunks of the mature cottonwoods and green ash to act as beaver repellant.
That work continues today, through the Bureau of Land Management, as a “best practice”. Our trees are thriving in the campgrounds, thanks to an irrigation system installed by the BLM, and an unexpected percentage of our seedlings are growing along the banks. The trees we wrapped have, to a large extent, survived beaver damage.
In the fall of 2006 we were living on the Big island of Hawaii. A 6.8 earthquake rumbled under the ocean floor inflicting serious damage to many structures, highways, and harbor facilities throughout the island chain. In the aftermath it was determined that the state of Hawaii, which relies almost entirely on its food being shipped from the mainland, would run out of food within 72 hours after its harbors had been closed or the food barges quit delivering. Hawaii produces almost no fruits and vegetables for internal consumption, instead relies almost exclusively on ocean going barges and planes in importing fresh food. We became very aware of the need for a community to be self-sustaining and able to provide for themselves, not only during a crisis, but every day.
Barely 2 years after that eye opening event we returned to Montana to discover that Montanans also produced very little of their food locally, resulting in near total dependence on interstate shippers to deliver from California and beyond. And, due to the economic crisis and climate changes (drought, pestilence) those out of state food producers are producing less fresh food and it’s costing more to grow and ship. Montanans are now paying more than ever to feed their families.
As a result, we rewrote and expanded the Sunburst mission statement. Sunburst Unlimited is now dedicated to educating and guiding organizations, neighborhoods and communities in developing a sustainable local food source through composting, gardening and year-round greenhouses. In carrying out our mission statement, our hope is that communities in Montana will become increasingly independent by growing more of their own food and creating jobs related to local sustainability.