What are Toyota and Kohler doing in Yellowstone National Park?

I go to a lot of sustainability conferences. But most usually don't include getting caught in a midnight snowstorm, 15 hours of bus rides and a traffic jam caused by a herd of bison and a grizzly bear — not to mention after-dinner lectures on wolves and geysers.

Last week I attended the second Greening Yellowstone Symposium at the urging of Mary Nickerson of Toyota, a big Yellowstone supporter. Organized by the Yellowstone Foundation and Yellowstone National Park, the purpose of the event was to seek feedback and develop action around the Yellowstone Vision for Sustainability Strategic Plan goals. About 40 sustainability executives from companies and NGOs joined park management and Yellowstone Park Foundation executives for an action-packed agenda — two tours of the park in buses interspersed with deep-dive breakout sessions on practical sustainability issues.

As the world’s first national park and home to the largest concentration of wildlife in the lower 48 states, Yellowstone National Park is an amazing laboratory for wildlife and geology. It’s a pristine natural treasure — but it takes hard work to keep Yellowstone pristine. Yellowstone aspires to be the exemplary practitioner of sustainability among the National Parks, but it offers unique sustainability challenges.

Among them:

1. Leveraging private partners for the public goals of the park, in an era of tight budgets.

2. Balancing environmental and energy goals with historic and natural preservation imperatives.

3. Engaging the park’s 3.5 million visitors to understand their role in keeping the park sustainable, and doing so through the park staff, as well as two major concessionaires, Xanterra and Delaware North.

4. Modernizing the park’s infrastructure for safety and visitor experience — while minimizing environmental impact.

5. Achieving all that in a park that is snowbound all but a few months of the year.

First task: Getting there

The symposium started on Mother’s Day, so I scrambled to reach the Chico Hot Springs Resort outside the park, by midnight. I failed, arriving at 1 a.m. after my little KIA rental car made it through a whiteout on the pass above Bozeman, Mont. (maybe the green media exec needs an SUV next time. Nah).

Crack of dawn: Roll up your sleeves for the Sustainability Action Plan

Millions of people vacation leisurely in Yellowstone every year, but the Symposium attendees were not. First stop was the Lamar Valley Buffalo Ranch, home to 4,500 free-range genetically unmodified bison. The ranch consists of a handful of rustic cabins used to house kids from the Expedition Yellowstone program, as well as researchers and educators who come there to study bison in this remote location, which can reach 40 degrees below zero in winter.

There, Toyota, an integral supporter of the Yellowstone Park Foundation, announced the donation of a RAV4 vehicle and $50,000 to aid the Lamar Buffalo Ranch sustainability project. A variety of partners, including Michelin, Andersen Windows & Doors and Herman-Miller, also are involved with Lamar.

Toyota is among a group of partners working to aid the work at Lamar while respecting natural and historical conservation. Among those partners is Indy Power Systems. Led by gregarious, wisecracking energy wonk and entrepreneur Steve Tolen, Indy is helping Lamar develop a sustainable energy source. The essence is a microgrid using a modular energy management system. It harnesses a potentially ubiquitous energy source for such systems: a rack of secondary use batteries from electric cars. So, used Toyota Prius batteries will power the microgrid at Lamar — along with 14 KW of solar panels. Tolen could be on to something, if he can find a productive use for what is sure to be a growing stock of used EV batteries.

That afternoon we headed back to the Youth Conservation Corps building in Mammoth, in the north end of the park, to brainstorm action plans around six key areas in Yellowstone's sustainability plan: leadership, educations and communication, energy, water, fleet and transportation (did someone say VERGE?)and environmental purchasing and waste reduction.buildings.

I was in the water group, led by Mollie Nelson, a park civil engineer. Over the next two days she pushed us to come up with actionable steps for a plan to cut water consumption in the park by 30 percent. The suggested steps were not dissimilar from what corporations and college campuses might come up with to cut water use: systemic evaluation of water infrastructure and metering throughout the park, coupled with a nuts-and-bolts inventory of plumbing and appliances in the park’s 150 or so buildings.

Rob Zimmerman of Kohler’s sustainability group, was particularly helpful in the built-environment assessment. Randy Schrauder of Summit Consulting Group in Jackson, Wyo., provided depth on “collection to connection” water systems as well as an encyclopedic knowledge of park infrastructure.

OK, so it wasn’t just all work and no sightseeing

Tuesday’s agenda featured a 10-hour bus ride through the park, stopping to take in some of the cutting-edge work that Yellowstone has undertaken: building the new Old Faithful Visitor Center and the OldFaithful Haynes Photo Shop as LEED, gold-certified buildings, not to mention the retrofitting of the park’s oldest hotel, the lodge at Yellowstone Lake.

The highlight came on a narrow stretch of road along the Yellowstone River between Yellowstone Lake and Yellowstone Falls. We suddenly found traffic stopped simultaneously by two amazing sights: four buffalo traipsed down the road at their own speed — seemingly but surely not oblivious to a massive grizzly bear lollygagging and relieving himself 100 feet up the hill from the road. As our two buses and dozens of cars looked on, the buffalo gradually trotted off in one direction down the road, while the grizzly disappeared up the hill in the other. Ho hum, another day in Yellowstone …

We got a great lecture that night from Doug Smith, the park's foremost expert on wolves and head of the park's Wolf Reintroduction Program. A man whose job makes the title of "The World’s Most Interesting Man” seem mundane, Smith is one part biologist and one part "Crocodile Hunter"-style adventurer. He spends his day with his team flying, skiing or walking around the park tracking wolves.

The wolves, reintroduced to the park in 1995 after decades of extinction, are a controversial bunch, particularly to elk partisans and ranchers. But their reintroduction is an inspiring effort to bring back an essential part of the ecosystem. Smith regaled us with stories from his studies of wolves, like the time he saw a pack of young male wolves and females chase after elk — while the elder males from their pack slept under a tree. (I couldn’t help conjure parallels with our human race, something involving “the elder males sleeping in front of a big screen TV.")

Moving forward on sustainability

Deputy Superintendent of Yellowstone Steve Iobst, who heads the park's green team, has some unique challenges in crafting a sustainability path for the park. How to update infrastructure for sustainability given rigid budgets? How to manage sustainability within the confines of a (understandably) rigid framework of natural and historic preservation? For example, adding solar at scale in the park would be a logical renewable energy substitute for propane — but not so easy to do if it changes the pristine landscape. How to find trucks and buses that can run more efficiently and still navigate Yellowstone’s narrow and (often) snowy roadways? All this, not to mention the need to focus on critical biological imperatives, namely preserving the natural habitat from pesky invasive species.

These challenges are complex and daunting. But the spirit of cooperation at the Symposium was encouraging. The park and the Yellowstone Foundation realize they need to tap into the expertise and resources of private sector partners to take sustainability to the next level. Partners such as Toyota, Michelin, Kohler, Andersen Windows were active participants — and more companies need to play.

The pristine “brand” of Yellowstone as a breathtakingly beautiful laboratory of nature certainly provides a great base to entice more companies to play with the Foundation to support their mission of sustainability in the park — and in a highly visible way in front of 3.5 million park attendees a year. I hope more companies do, and suspect they will.

Wednesday morning I had to head to the Bozeman Airport so I missed the final wrap-up on the plan, but I suspect there is great practical fodder there to put build into the next Sustainability Plan.

Top image of Yellowstone bus by Matt Ludin