Montana State landscape design students integrate wildfire resilience and drought tolerance into novel project
By Moosetrack Megan

Posted: August 29, 2023

BOZEMAN – The Bridger Foothills fire in 2020 burned around 8,000 acres along the south end of the Bridger Mountains, including more than 30 homes. Several residential neighborhoods were less than 2 miles from the wildfire. Since an ember can travel up to 4 miles ahead of an active wildfire front, those neighborhoods were well within range.

That reality, along with drought in the American West, was the focus of a unique project undertaken by Montana State University landscape design students this spring. The students, under the direction of adjunct professor Sonya Gimon, worked with a pair of Bozeman homeowners to integrate fire resilience and drought tolerance into new landscape design suggestions.

The course is part of the landscape design option within MSU’s environmental horticulture program, which is housed in the College of Agriculture’s Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology. And while both drought and wildfire are well-known to Montana residents, Gimon said that, as with other climate impacts, the exciting challenge for landscape architects and designers is to balance various considerations to create resilient landscapes.

“Most of my professional experience is in larger public projects that respond to a combination of climate impacts, such as sea level rise, urban heat island effect and biodiversity loss, so it was really interesting to see how students were able to apply a similar layered approach to design in the local residential context,” said Gimon.

Gimon brought in local experts to give the class context on wildfire and drought so that the students would be better prepared to integrate the two concepts into their design recommendations for Bozeman homeowners Bruce and Kathy Lange, who live near the Custer Gallatin National Forest on the south side of Bozeman.

Kelly Pohl, associate director of Bozeman-based nonprofit Headwaters Economics, discussed research around wildfire science, while Anna Mack, city of Bozeman water conservation program technician, provided context for drought tolerance and strategies to reduce water consumption.

Pohl, who is an MSU graduate, said the course and project Gimon designed are unique in how they combine pressing issues, and she hopes the result will be knowledge the students can apply when they eventually work with clients after they graduate from MSU.

“In working with these students, I saw a lot of passion about making landscape designs that benefit clients as well as Montana communities,” said Pohl. “Integrating these concepts into their education can help them take that passion into a successful career.”

The class visited the Langes’ home, which was built in the 1970s, to learn about the property, landscape and surrounding natural areas. They then built recommendations based on what they learned over the course of the semester.

The opportunity to approach such a project with a real-life property and balance the science of fire and drought with homeowner history and values provided a more engaging way of learning the subject matter, said MSU student Liam King.

“It was a really cool experience having the opportunity to talk to real people about their goals for their property,” said King, who is originally from Vermont and currently an MSU senior. “Doing this in a hands-on way turned my brain on a bit more. Throughout the whole process, I was thinking about how I could utilize these concepts and ideas in my design. I feel like I was able to take a lot of the information away to actually use it.”

For senior Berry Berryman, crafting recommendations for the Langes created was an exciting way to blend science with creativity. Her proposal for the Langes’ property incorporated drought-tolerant and native plants, added wildlife corridors to ensure continued access for the animals who call the surrounding wilderness home and proposed a xeriscape garden made up of landscaping that reduces or eliminates the need for external irrigation.

“We created a spreadsheet of native plants, grasses and shrubs based on fire tolerance and water needs. That was a highlight of this project for me because it provides a resource that people can use on their landscapes and gardens,” said Berryman. “I want to stay in Bozeman, and I want to be a pivotal part of educating people about landscape design. This makes a difference in our community and it’s important for the resilience of the Gallatin Valley.”

Berryman has worked as a landscaper and in a nursery during the decade she has lived in the Gallatin Valley and has seen that drought tolerance is already a priority for many residents. She hopes that after she graduates in December, she will be able to help teach people about fire resilience so that it becomes a focus as well.

“Bozeman does a great job of making people aware that our drought tolerance is a priority,” Berryman said. “Even after the Bridger Foothills fire, people aren’t really talking as much about fire resilience, and we really are so close to those fire zones. The concept of mixing these two ideas together was a new and interesting challenge that I had never thought of.”

For the Langes, engaging with students was enjoyable and enlightening. The couple is open to incorporating elements of the various designs that came from the class to make their property more resilient, and they were struck by the energy that the students brought to the project.

“They were all very enthusiastic. They were very attuned to drought and fire as issues and were eager to come up with ideas,” said Bruce Lange. “My wife and I both feel that higher education is really important, and we were glad to give these students an opportunity to do this in a real-life situation and collaborate with homeowners.”

King said the course widened his perspective on designs.

“Now I’m going to be thinking of these things, these environmental threats, wherever I may be with my future profession,” he said. “These types of projects are going to be huge, so these concepts will be in my mind as I move forward.”

From the outside, Pohl at Headwaters Economics sees MSU’s landscape design program as a leader in the region, taking important steps toward more resilient communities.

“The fact that students are incorporating climate into their practice is a really exciting step in the right direction, because there needs to be more cross-pollination between the folks who are thinking about wildfire and the people who work on building housing,” she said. “It’s new and important and not something that’s happening in a lot of places. It’s thrilling to see it happening right here at MSU.”

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