Park City, Utah. Johnny Adolphson/shutterstock
Park City, Utah. Johnny Adolphson/shutterstock

Just 8,526 people live in Park City, Utah. The one-time mining town sits in a deep-red state where the legislature once passed a resolution bashing science and implying climate change is a conspiracy. And yet, over the past few years, the city has emerged as a national climate leader.

Park City has won a national award for its climate efforts. Thanks to everything from electric buses to solar farms, it may succeed in reaching net zero emissions as a community within a decade. And it is leading a coalition of mountain towns committed to combating climate change.

Park City, of course, is not your average alpine hamlet. It hosts the annual Sundance Film Festival. Its ski resorts were some of the main locations for the 2002 Winter Olympics. Its part-time residents and visitors include some of the wealthiest and most well-connected Americans. And it is a generally beloved location, consistently making the lists of “best” and “prettiest” small towns in America.

Despite its elite reputation, the city’s gains on climate change have been a team effort. One of the forces behind the outsized progress is the Park City Community Foundation, which was founded in 2007. From its perch in the mountains east of Salt Lake City, the foundation offers a model for how community funders, particularly in small towns, can take locally tailored action on climate change that both responds to their communities’ needs and leverages their unique strengths.

“Climate change has been a thread throughout the entirety of the community foundation’s existence,” said Katie Wright, the organization’s executive director. “We understand that we have 10 years as a globe to reverse climate change.”

Avoiding the “wrecking ball”

Like other mountain towns, snow—or rather its absence—is at the heart of Park City’s action on climate change. Since the 1970s, the city has lost about six weeks of winter temperatures. It’s a dynamic that has pushed community foundations in places like Lake Tahoe, as IP covered earlier this year, to take action on climate change.

For such destinations, loss of snowpack is an existential threat. As local newspaper the Park Record put it in an editorial supporting the community foundation’s work, climate change could “one day serve as a wrecking ball to Park City’s ski tourism-dependent economy.”

“It’s our culture. We get excited for powder days. But it’s also the basis for our economy. It’s what drives our ability to fund things,” Wright said.

In one of its first such projects, the community foundation commissioned a study on the impact of climate change on Park City’s snowfall. To convey the gravity of the situation—not to mention create a media-friendly photo op—the foundation held an event with groups of children lined up at the projected 2030, 2050 and 2075 snow lines.

When Park City officials pledged in 2018 to reduce municipal carbon emissions to zero and transition to 100% renewable electricity by 2022—and by 2030 for the whole community—Wright’s organization knew it had a role to play. A shared goal is just the kind of catalyst she’d recommend for any community foundation looking to enter the arena.

“Setting an ambitious vision, in partnership with key stakeholders, is a great first step for any community foundation in addressing climate change,” Wright said.

As a result, over the past two years, the community foundation has launched and grown two projects to fund local work and innovation, while also sharing those lessons far beyond Park City.

A climate fund for wetlands, weeds and more

Last year, the community foundation launched the Park City Climate Fund. The aim was to establish, for the first time, an ongoing source of funding for climate work.

“The truth is, we have found it difficult to have consistent, continued climate efforts,” Wright said. “It’s always been difficult for us to raise resources at the level we wanted.”

For a young foundation that is also trying to build its endowment, the choice is a response to the urgency of climate change, and one backed by donor interest. The fund has raised enough to provide at least $100,000 annually for the next few years, and fundraising continues, with a goal of having at least a quarter-million dollars in funding annually. And it’s not just from the usual suspects. They’ve received money from retired oil and gas executives, even grandmothers concerned about their grandchildren’s futures.

“I’ve also been surprised about who is passionate about climate change. I would encourage people to think broadly about their donor base,” Wright said. “This is an issue that cuts across politics and other stereotypes more than we think it does.”

The program made its first grants in February 2020, with $175,000 going to three state organizations: Recycle Utah, TreeUtah and Utah Clean Energy. Last month, an additional $210,000 round of grants went to eight applicants, including local groups. The amounts ranged from $14,000 to $75,000.

Like most of the foundation’s giving, grants are not limited to projects within the municipality—efforts anywhere in Summit County, where Park City is located, and adjacent areas are eligible. Nor is the fund tied to any particular strategy. It lists a half-dozen areas of interest, but also suggests grantees look at Project Drawdown’s widely referenced list of climate solutions for ideas.

“Unlike some of our other efforts, what we found was, there wasn’t a clear roadmap that everyone agreed on or we could follow,” Wright said. “I think that just speaks to the challenge of climate change… that nobody, globally, has it figured out. And the responses need to be so localized.”

Funded projects range from an effort to restore streams and wetlands, including a volunteer-run effort to build 100 dams modeled after beaver dams, and funding an environmental justice fellowship with Planned Parenthood of Utah, which will help create the framework for a future Youth Environmental Justice Coalition. Other grants have gone toward lobbying campaigns on state energy rules, removing a noxious weed known as garlic mustard, and planting 2,000-plus trees.

One emphasis is finding locally suited solutions, not just for Park City, but for all mountain regions. For instance, one project aims to look at sequestration methods that work in high alpine communities, particularly for the cattle ranches that border most ski resorts. Wright said most data she’s encountered are gathered at lower altitudes. The foundation hopes its grantees can produce research that can be shared.

“What we found is, there’s so many great ideas in the community,” Wright said. “If we can put resources and support into those ideas, we’ve really done our job.”

A league of mountain towns combating climate change 

One refrain repeated across the community foundation’s work on climate is that they should reach beyond the city’s ski slopes and geographic borders. The climate fund’s mission statement, for instance, aims to develop solutions that “have the potential to be effective in similar communities.”

The recognition Park City has won shows that its vision is not some pie-in-the-sky dream. This year, the city was chosen as the U.S. winner of the World Wildlife Fund’s One Planet City Challenge program, beating out 22 other finalists, including metropolises like Los Angeles and Cleveland.

“Park City earned this award because they showed how cities can address these emissions and be important testbeds and multipliers of climate solutions,” said Kevin Taylor, the U.S. director of the program, in a press release. “They showed we can all influence positive change on climate action.”

One of the most organized efforts to share the city’s lessons launched last year, when the community foundation joined with the city government to found Mountain Towns 2030, a coalition of alpine municipalities dedicated to reducing their carbon emissions to zero, ideally by 2030, and inspiring others along the way.

Notably, the ties between the foundation and the city have always been tight. The foundation was founded by Bradley Och, a three-term former mayor of the city, and John Cumming, a local philanthropist who owned one of the city’s two major ski resorts until 2014.

“Park City is at the forefront in leading mountain towns to take action in reversing climate change and Park City Community Foundation plays a critical role,” said the city’s mayor, Andy Beerman, in a press release. “Our local focus on this issue has the power to serve as an example for global impact.”

Other mountain towns, such as Jackson Hole, Wyoming, have similarly ambitious climate goals. But those communities didn’t have many forums to connect and learn from each other. Efforts like Bloomberg Philanthropies’ American Cities Initiative were an inspiration. “We understood those networks have a lot of impact,” Wright said.

The Mountain Towns 2030 kickoff event brought some of the star power that Park City can command, including researcher Jane Goodall and Project Drawdown founder Paul Hawken. The group, for which the community foundation serves as fiscal sponsor, also funded climate inventories for 20 conference goers, many of which were just starting their climate journeys. Due to the pandemic, the group’s second summit will be held in 2021.

To date, 20 cities have signed the coalition’s pledge, not just those in Utah, but also Colorado, Montana and Wyoming. In total, the pledge has more than 40 signatories, including various conservation groups and ski companies—key partners in mountain towns, considering the amount of energy they use.

“There are a lot of really small mountain communities that don’t really have a road map,” said Wright. “If we worked together, we could accomplish a great deal.”

A sign of things to come?

Wright is quick to note that Park City’s climate footprint is miniscule. Reducing it will not, on its own, have much impact. But the city’s visibility is huge. It gets millions of visitors each year. Some of those visitors are among the most powerful in the state, if not the nation. And they come to commune with nature—a time when people are especially receptive to thinking about humanity’s relationship with the environment.

“We know that, although we’re small, we can have this greater influence,” she said. “And that’s part of the reason we have such ambitious goals. People will come here and stay here and see what we’re doing here and bring it back with them.”

It’s hard to know how much, if at all, Park City was an influence, but Utah’s government is starting to make some uncommon moves for a Republican-dominated legislature. In January, a government-funded report offered a roadmap for slashing the state’s emissions. And in October, a bipartisan group of more than 100 state leaders signed a compact on climate action.

The city has also made an impact farther from home. For instance, Park City was one of the early purchasers of electric buses from a company called Proterra, which has become a major player as municipalities across the country electrify their bus fleets.

These steps and the community foundation’s new investments in climate action have, of course, come during a year thrown into disarray by another threat: COVID-19. As with other grantmakers, the foundation’s team has put a lot of work toward assembling an emergency fund to support their community’s needs. Yet for Wright, one silver lining of the pandemic is greater optimism about the potential for the nation—and humanity—to beat the rapidly ticking climate clock.

“We’ve seen that people can really dramatically change the way they live in a short amount of time,” she said. “I think all of that learning bodes well for a decade of really dramatic climate action.”