Birkie Green: Working for What You Love
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The American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation (ABSF) unveiled its Birkie Green initiative on September 26, 2019, two days before the Birkie Trail Run Festival. Ben Popp, ABSF Executive Director, couldn’t hide his enthusiasm as he described some of the results. “The race had one bag of garbage. One!” said Popp. “We had 1,200 participants and there were zero cups used and there was zero food waste. The rest was either composted or recycled. The composting was interestingly difficult. We have to slow down and educate folks. But there are going to be challenges learning to be responsible as part of the world we live in.”
One of the core tenets of the ABSF is to be good stewards of the Birkie Trail. The Birkie Green page of the Birkie website lists many goals for the initiative which is designed: “To take the best possible care of this amazing resource, and the environment in general.” There’s a long list of choices the ABSF has been making under the Birkie Green banner. Nancy Knutson, Director of Marketing & Communications for the ABSF, said, “We’ve just surpassed the use of 10,000 reusable Birkie gear bags, which keeps thousands of plastic bags out of landfills each year.”
The Birkie Green program seems older than one year because the ABSF was already making good choices for several years. The ABSF first issued reusable gear bags in 2017, over two years before Birkie Green existed. The Birkie Green concept helps gather the individual choices together as part of a larger, combined effort.
The 2017 cancellation of the American Birkebeiner brought the future of the race to the forefront of everyone’s minds. Popp gave credit to his staff for their reaction. “They were passionate,” he said. “They had so many exciting ideas about sustainability. We got together and analyzed our strengths and weaknesses as an event. We took these ideas to the board and they said, ‘Run with it. Let’s be a part of the solution.’”
According to Knutson, the cupless initiative eliminated 7,650 plastic cups from use in 2019/20 events. The Samuel C. Johnson Family Outdoor Center at the OO Trailhead was designed using passive solar energy for heat and light. After building an electric car charging station at the OO Trailhead, the ABSF installed a station in November 2020, steps from the Birkie start line trailhead in Cable, WI. Also, the race bag went virtual to further eliminate waste generated at the Birkie Expo. See the whole list at www.birkie.com/live/birkie-green/.
Popp worries about the sustainability of the American Birkebeiner in a world where natural snow has become less reliable, with conflicting choices event organizations have to make. For example, creating manmade snow for cross-country skiers while worrying about the electricity, water, and resources snowmaking requires. The Birkie’s efforts, though significant, are small on a global scale. However, Popp was optimistic about Birkie Green setting an example and the impact it can have. “We have the ability to influence a network of 30,000 people who are connected to the Birkie,” he said. “We can inspire those people. Like the backpack idea. It’s just one bag, but if we all do it… The power of one organization and even just one change can make a big difference over time.”
Knutson pointed out one example of this vast network of Birkie skiers and how they’re already making a difference. “We reached out to Paul Thompson,” she said, “from Cool Planet Skiers, an organization dedicated to environmental change and saving winter. Paul and his crew have helped to spread the word about Birkie Green through their booth at the Birkie Expo and much more. His crew has volunteered at Birkie events as helpers in guiding people to sort the trash into compostable materials versus recyclable materials, resulting in minimal event waste.”
Thompson co-founded Cool Planet in 2007 after retiring as an elementary school teacher. Per its website, Cool Planet, a non-profit based in Edina, MN, informs and inspires people to be fit, have fun, and take action for a healthy and sustainable home, neighborhood, and planet. Currently Co-Director of Cool Planet, Thompson is married to the other Co-Director, Mindy Ahler. She’s also a Regional Coordinator for the North Wind Region of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL) covering the Dakotas, Nebraska, Iowa, and Minnesota. CCL is a non-profit, nonpartisan, grassroots advocacy organization focused on national policies to address climate change. Thompson and Ahler may define the phrase “climate advocacy super-couple.”
In 2021, Thompson plans to ski his landmark 40th Birkie. “I want 40 to be a celebration,” he said, “but let’s talk about climate change on manmade loops of snow. Cross-country skiers are in the crosshairs of climate change.”
Ahler and Thompson have been vocal advocates for climate sustainability at the Birkie Expo as Cool Planet Skiers and CCL for many years. In 2013, they were instrumental in bringing Bill McKibben, a nationally known environmentalist, to speak in Hayward during Birkie week. In 2017, they invited filmmaker Diogo Freire to the Birkie. He interviewed Ben Popp for the documentary Saving Snow. The movie’s impact was strengthened by Popp’s presence, especially in a year when the event had to be cancelled because of lack of snow.
“At our booth in 2019,” Ahler said, “we put up a big board that listed actions people can take, and they checked off the behaviors they already do at home.” At times, people might feel like their individual actions don’t make an impact. This visible tallying at the Cool Planet Skiers booth provided a way for skiers to see that they aren’t alone. Ahler echoed Popp’s sentiments about choices and tradeoffs. “Look at how much energy we use,” she said. “At least the Birkie is getting started. The event is taking steps and doing so with humility. They’re honest about the internal struggle, the choices they make. Skiers are individually struggling with the same choices.”
COVID-19 has posed more challenges to race events and the Birkie Green initiative. Knutson shared photos of how Birkie Trail Run Festival events in September 2020 managed to go cupless while allowing safe, socially-distanced dispensing of water and energy drinks. The obstacles get even tougher when planning Birkie ski events during the pandemic. “We used free-flowing water stations with a gutter system in the fall,” Popp said, “but winter poses challenges for that.”
He made it clear that safety was the priority, so virus protocols may sometimes be in conflict with being “green” at the event. For example, for several years the Duluth Cross-Country Ski Club has hired a bus to bring dozens of club skiers to the race start and meet them at the finish, eliminating many cars from the road. “Before the virus,” Popp said, “that was going to be one of our big pushes this year. We want to enable good choices.” He talked about using temporary electric car charging stations that could be installed near event venues, but that’s now uncertain.
Although the coronavirus has challenged an already complex event, one thing is certain: Everybody associated with the Birkie Green program is passionate about the impact it can have. “We’ll continue to evolve,” Popp said. “We love to encourage new ideas. Birkie Green will be here for a long time.”
Thompson and Ahler both exude optimism and, like thousands of others, they cherish the Birkie. Thompson said, “When you come home from the Birkie, you can ask yourself, ‘What is my role as a human living in this world?’ Everyone needs to find ways to make an impact in their local community. I mean, it’s right in the Birkie slogan: ‘Ski. Run. Bike. Live!’ It means working for what you love.”