"If people don't understand the natural world, they won't make good decisions."
That's the opinion of Craig Barry, executive director of the Ketchum-based Environmental Resource Center. It's also one of the center's guiding principles, driving its mission to promote sustainability through better environmental awareness.
In the 10 years since Barry has been at the ERC, he's seen a major change in the way people talk about living sustainably.
"It's morphed in terms of language," he said.
While "being green" used to be about climate protection, Barry said, this term is "not in vogue" anymore. Instead, people are focusing on how they can financially benefit from eco-consciousness.
"Not wasting money is very much in vogue," Barry said, especially with the current economic climate.
But it's not just about the recession. Sustainability matters, Barry said, because if fuel prices rise, the valley could be in a permanent state of economic turmoil.
"Businesses that are energy-inefficient could go out of business," he said, and families that don't live efficiently could be forced to move out of the valley, where energy costs or at least the cost of living may be less expensive.
Barry said that's why the ERC is so focused on making sure the valley runs efficiently. If organizations and families don't make the effort to be sustainable, rising fuel costs could drastically harm the community.
Roots in recycling
Making an effort to live sustainably formed the beginnings of the ERC, though in the early days recycling was the main issue.
"It was a much smaller organization," Barry said, composed of 12 volunteers who were passionate about environmental issues.
Now, the center boasts two full-time employees, one part-time employee and two volunteers from Americorps, a national community service organization.
The center began in 1993, and started working toward recycling efforts almost immediately. The county currently recycles 16 percent of its solid waste, which Barry said is an improvement over its recycling when the center was formed. Recycling efforts in the county have been increasing steadily since 2002, according to center reports. The county increased recycling in 2008 by 19 percent over the previous year, an increase that the Southern Idaho Solid Waste District reported was the largest single-year increase since the district was formed in 1995.
Barry said the original founders took issue with the Southern Idaho Solid Waste District's stance on recycling, a controversy that continued well into 2010 as the district urged the county to take over management of the recycling center near the Ohio Gulch Transfer Station.
"All was not well with the district," Barry said, and people were frustrated by not knowing what they could recycle and where.
Blaine County shouldered the burden of managing the recycling center in August, a move Barry said should make the center more accessible and raise community awareness.
"People do support recycling," he said. "They don't always like the way it works, though."
Barry said community support for the center's recycling efforts has been good, and the center's program for providing recycling at special events has been largely successful.
"I think we've changed the bar, we've changed expectations," Barry said. "All events are really expected to have recycling now."
Organizations will often contact the center with requests ranging from borrowing bins to help with designing a waste-free event.
Barry said the Sun Valley Center for the Arts Wine Auction is an example of an event where everything—"from the silverware to the cups"—was biodegradable. The same type of cups, made from corn, is used for Ketchum's gallery walks. Both events used to result in hundreds of non-compostable cups.
"We see things that aren't quite working and try to find solutions," Barry said of the center's recycling efforts.
However, as both Barry and Education Director Lisa Huttinger emphasize, living sustainably is very difficult without the education to inform eco-friendly decisions.
"Awareness is huge," Barry said.
While the center offers programs for adults who wish to be certified master naturalists and learn more about the environment in the Wood River Valley, Huttinger's main programs focus on children. Many of the programs are run through the schools, and Huttinger said she works with teachers to make sure students are gaining the skills required by state laws while learning about the Wood River Valley.
"Book learning is important, but we're the lucky ones who get to hand the kids nets and buckets and let them fish out macroinvertebrates," Huttinger said of the trips she and local students take to the Big Wood River.
The center's environmental outreach started in 2003. Now, Barry said, it's an "expected part" of the curriculum for students at Hemingway Elementary as well as Bellevue Elementary and the Community School.
"If we can teach them without them knowing they're learning, we're doing great," Huttinger said.
In addition to expanding its educational efforts and recycling programs, the center is also working to help cities and counties make building codes greener.
Barry said he hopes the center can host an energy summit in March, a convention of "key decision-makers" who can help to develop a long-term plan for increasing the region's energy efficiency and addressing the valley's largest environmental problems.
"These are big, complicated issues," Barry said. "There's not really a magic bullet anymore. You can't look for just one solution."
The center is still short $24,000 of its fundraising goal for the summit, which is being conducted with the help of the New Energy Cities Program. This Seattle-based program helps communities develop plans to create green jobs, increase efficiency and add renewable energy to city infrastructure.
Strive for sustainability
At the end of the day, Barry said, the center strives to connect with the community and help people live in harmony with the valley's ecosystem.
"A lot of the community does come to us with questions and concerns," he said. "We love hearing from folks."
Some of the problems and concerns are enormous—too big for the center or even local governments to handle alone.
Still, Barry said he is optimistic that the valley can continue striving toward a more sustainable way of life.
"We're Sun Valley," he said. "We should be able to do some unique things."
Katherine Wutz: firstname.lastname@example.org