Amidst their Climate Emergency Declaration, the city of Montague is taking bold actions. Will neighboring cities follow this leader?
What’s Happening in Montague?
It’s common to hear about the climate in headlines these days. Sometimes, sadly, it feels like old news. Fires in Oregon. Droughts in California. These true disasters have almost become expected to hear about. But a few weeks ago the Midwest made the news. This shattered the illusion for many in West Michigan that the perils of the climate are faraway. The article in the New York Times highlighted Lake Michigan and the dangers it faces. Dangers, you guessed it, fueled by climate change.
It’s news like this that highlights the importance of cities like Montague. What’s happening in Montague? Well, if you ask me, I’d say something revolutionary. Montague, located in Northern Muskegon, has taken ambitious steps to minimize its carbon footprint. In 2020 the city declared a climate emergency. Since then, they’ve continued to investigate and carry out ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
In a conversation with Montague’s city manager, Jeff Auch, I learned more about this lake community’s story.
Before becoming city manager, Jeff Auch studied natural resource management and later worked for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Grand Valley State University, and most recently served as the long term executive director of the Muskegon Conservation District. Jeff lives in the city and served on the planning commission and city council of Montague for many years, which eventually led him to his position as city manager. He noted, “coming into the position… I’ve kind of stressed natural resource components.”
His efforts – and the community’s – have certainly paid off.
The city of Montague’s environmental work started where you might expect: with restoration of natural shorelines and native plantings. Montague is a hotspot summer destination with beautiful lake views and recreational opportunities. It’s no wonder its community could rally around protecting its parks and waters.
The city eventually started shifting gears to focus more on energy. Early efforts included switching all city utilities over to LEDs. Jeff confessed, “every now and then we find a miscellaneous [non-LED] lightbulb,” but nearly every light in city-owned buildings has been converted at this point. That movement, Jeff believes, “got a lot of staff and council kind of thinking about that energy efficiency component.”
What the future holds
Down the line, that “energy” has carried. In December of 2020, acting upon a request from the new White Lake Area Climate Action Council, the city approved a climate emergency declaration, with a vote of five to two.
Auch emphasized that this declaration was key in trying to get everyone in the community on the same page. “We’re trying to get the recognition out there of ‘this is real.’” Another approach the city has taken is continuing to intertwine its longer-standing park improvements and natural resource benefits with the new climate resolution. Examples of this include minimizing grass-lawn spaces and preserving water quality. Auch mused, “I think this helps to focus the efforts, to bring [all types of efforts] into a single arena… versus little things here and there.”
Around the same time the resolution was approved, the Montague Police Department was due for new vehicles. This time around, the city ordered certified, police-patrol approved hybrid vehicles for the department. The action dovetailed with the resolution, and showed citizens the city was committed in both word and deed. Like the LED lights, the patrol cars reveal a distinct leadership philosophy. While many of the resolutions in the climate declaration focus on the entire community, Auch’s philosophy is to “lead by example.” The city’s actions show its leaders are determined to do their part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Auch describes the city’s current climate action plan as “a work in motion… building a bike while you’re riding it.” But he doesn’t seem daunted. He seems to understand that what’s important is taking action.
Near the end of our conversation, Auch shared how they hope to acclimate the plan to the community. Auch admits, “the biggest concern is always financial.” He hopes that block grants could alleviate some of the financial burden, and knows that town halls and conversations with the community will be a key part of the transition to carbon neutrality.
Already the city has begun to digitally engage their community with the Facebook group “Montague Together,” which is working in partnership with the White Lake Area Climate Action Council. In reflecting on the growing partnership, Auch remarked, “this is not [the White Lake Area Climate Action Council] driving it, this is not the city driving it, this is the whole community.” His remark opened my eyes to exactly what made Montague’s work so inspiring: the emphasis on balance. The City of Montague was determined to lead, yet also willing to let other organizations step up to the plate. They knew their city could handle the change, but they also knew their city deserved leadership. They knew a written declaration was important, and they tandemed their words with actions.
Though Montague is still building the bike, it hasn’t stopped them from pedaling a good distance. They’re proving a worthy and inspiring model to neighboring cities and far beyond. I’m grateful for their efforts, and I look forward to seeing whatever innovations continue to emerge from their strategies.
Shanley Smith is a life long Hollander, currently working with WMEAC and the Holland Climate Collaborative. Through community organizing and writing she strives to make her hometown a greener place. More of her work can be found on Dimly Lit, where she serves as a writer and editor.