HOT SPRINGS — The past decade has been the warmest on record. Heat waves are lasting longer, ice sheets are shrinking and sea levels are rising. The effects of climate change stand to affect everyone, especially the next generation.

High schoolers are keenly aware of this and although they can’t yet vote, they’re doing their part to ensure a more sustainable future.

Last month, students across the world held a climate walkout during which they left classes early to demand that policymakers take action. Although the walkout had a global reach, other students like those at Hot Springs High School feel the most effective way to initiate change is to start small.

Recently the Hot Springs students participated in the school’s first environmental symposium, where students and community members learned about various environmental topics through hands-on activities and discussions.

Last Thursday's symposium also celebrated the culmination of the school’s project to reduce waste.

In October, students began collecting old fabric and T-shirts they turned into reusable bags in an effort to reduce plastic waste.

The school started the project as part of the statewide Save Money and Resources Today (SMART) Schools challenge through the Montana Department of Environmental Quality after science teacher Annie Gustafson suggested the school get involved.

The challenge encourages schools across Montana to compete to see which can save the most money and resources by conserving energy, recycling waste and implementing other green practices that benefit student health.

“They literally went into our storage unit and found bins and bins of old fabric and they started making reusable bags,” Gustafson said.

The students visited grocery stores and asked people to pledge to stop using single-use plastic. In return, they gave one of the reusable bags they made to each person who signed the pledge.

They also wrote to two reusable bag companies, Bagito and ChicoBag, who agreed to match the number of bags the students made.

“If you think about how tiny Hot Springs is, we have just about enough bags to give every family a bag in this town,” Gustafson said of the town with fewer than 1,000 residents.

The effort might seem small next to the issue of climate change, but the students hoped to show that little things can make a big difference.

The students even got Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney to sign their pledge when they visited the Capitol, where students Morgan Hoff and EmmaRae Rasmussen presented the project.

“It was so cool to hear what the schools were doing because a lot of them are a lot bigger than us,” Rasmussen said. “Like, they use solar power and hydroponics and aquaponics.

“Us being such a small school, I think we realize that what we're doing is just as important as what they’re doing,” she said.

Throughout the year, the students have also been volunteering their free time after lunch to wash dishes so the school can cut down on its plastic and Styrofoam use.

The school’s environmental group also talked about the project at a City Council meeting and invited community members to join them for the symposium.

At the symposium, the students listened to two keynote speakers and attended a mix of breakout sessions where they learned about various topics from some of the leading environmental groups in Montana.

For a small school off the beaten path in western Montana, the event featured an impressive lineup that included Hilary Hutcheson, a representative for Patagonia Fly Fishing and Protect Our Winters, a worldwide nonprofit focused on building a community of climate advocates; and George Price, an environmental activist and retired professor from the University of Montana.

About 50 students from grades five through 12 crowded the school’s gymnasium to listen to Hutcheson’s talk focused on climate change and advocacy. In one video, an outdoor sports enthusiast posed the question: “Wouldn’t it suck to never have another snow day again?”

Students also attended various break-out groups to learn about topics such as native plants, entrepreneurship and sustainable companies, the carbon footprint of food, aquatic invasive species, identifying macroinvertebrates —such as mayflies — and soil health.

Presenters included representatives from UM, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Natural Resources Development, Energy Corps and the National Center for Appropriate Technology, Glacier National Park, Clark Fork Coalition, Montana Wilderness Association and others.

Additionally, students asked sporting goods stores like Cabela’s, Sportsman & Ski Haus and Rocky Mountain Outfitter in Kalispell, and the Trail Head in Missoula to donate prizes for a raffle.

“We’re hoping that if you walk away with a fishing pole, then maybe you’ll go fishing and have a sense of stewardship toward our public lands,” Gustafson said.

Community member Sandra Sitzmann attended the event to see how youth are getting involved in efforts to be more green.

“It’s very exciting to see that people are making changes,” Sitzmann said. “This is for future generations.”

Superintendent Mike Perry even gave U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines a call at the assembly to illustrate to students how easy it is for them to share their concerns with their lawmakers.

Perry said he hopes Hot Springs is the first, but not only school to host an environmental symposium. He said he would love for schools to link up across the state to hold similar events and have a statewide impact.

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