LDS members inspire faith-driven initiatives to preserve the natural world


Despite sharing a small south-campus apartment with three other roommates, Brian Shirts is passionate about his garden, which he cultivates on a few small patches of Earth in his apartment complex parking lot.

“The ability to make my own spaghetti sauce and make it taste better than anything you can buy is a great feeling,” Shirts said. “I guess it all comes down to being able to create something and the desire to make it the best.”

Shirts is far from alone in his desire to maintain a connection with nature. Among Latter-day Saints, interest in environmentalism has grown since the 1970s, when then church President Spencer Kimball renewed Brigham Young’s decree that church members, as the earth’s stewards, should clean up and cultivate their properties.

“We recommend to all people that there be no undue pollution, that the land be taken care of and kept clean to be productive and to be beautiful,” President Kimball said during an April 1975 conference address. “We are concerned when we see numerous front and side and back yards that have gone to weeds, where ditch banks are cluttered and trash and refuse accumulate.”

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LDS chapels in Mesa, Ariz., and Farmington use solar panels to conserve energy
Nearly forty years of primary songs later, the impact of church members’ interest in sustaining nature can be felt across the world, from the Pacific Isles to right here in Provo, and in diverse ways. Member- and church-driven initiatives have inspired everything from eco-friendly meetinghouses, to community recycling projects, and in the near future may save endangered species from extinction.

Reducing a global footprint

LDS meetinghouses across the country have been built with an eye toward sustainability since the 1980s, though few members are aware of the nearly invisible, energy saving technologies that may be built into the chapel they use each week. Light-detecting photo cells mounted to the exterior of some church buildings use sunlight to monitor the time of day and turn exterior lighting on or off, saving some 1,200 kilowatts of electricity per meetinghouse each year. Other sensors monitor rainfall to determine when the lawn will need water—a technology that, when combined with choosing low-maintenance plants, reduces each building’s water use by 50 percent, saving 356,000 gallons each season, according to materials from church representatives.

As new technologies became available, the Church was often one of the first to test their effectiveness. In 2005, meetinghouse sprinkling systems incorporated sensors that monitored plant roots to determine when additional water was needed, and in 2007 the first meetinghouse to use solar power was constructed in Tuamotu, Tahiti.

But the real kicker came in 2010, when the Church announced that it had constructed five prototype meetinghouses designed to meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards, the highest standard for sustainable building currently recognized by the construction industry. While the evaluation of these prototypes is ongoing, the new buildings show promise, according to church spokesperson Scott Trotter.

“The new technologies tested in our prototype meetinghouses have shown to reduce electric and gas consumption significantly,” Trotter said in an email. “Many of these innovations are now part of our standard meetinghouse designs for future, comparable building projects.”

Many of the same technologies used in those prototypes will appear in BYU’s new College of Life Sciences building, which is currently under construction on the south end of campus. Once finished, the new building will meet silver LEED standards, according to Life Sciences Dean Rodney Brown.

But the new standards for building aren’t nearly as indicative of church members’ interest in sustainability as is the growth of the Life Sciences college itself. Two years ago, the college had 4,400 students, Brown said. Today, it has 5,500, and more than 200 of them signed up in March alone.

Sustainability has always been a part of church doctrine Brown explained, but members have only recently caught on. “Sometimes it takes us time to catch up to what the Lord has told us,” he said.

Raising a sustainable future

Scriptural basis for stewardship or no, Kaye Nelson, a Provo resident, said she believes the LDS trend toward sustainability may be more influenced by the Church’s traditional family values.

“There is no big initiative within the Church. I think it’s more in the families and ward activities,” Nelson said. “My hope is that parents in homes would be teaching children the value of the earth.”

For Nelson’s family, recycling became a family tradition while living in Austin, Texas, where residents were supplied with tubs for different reusable materials. Sorting through old cans and bottles became so ingrained as a habit that when the family moved to Utah, Nelson found she couldn’t bring herself to throw recyclables in the trash—which, at the time, was local resident’s only option.

Nelson began writing letters to the Provo City mayor, and, though she is skeptical of the role her personal campaign had in the decision, Provo eventually began to offer recycling. Just this last fall, the city switched to an opt-out recycling system.

Once Provo began recycling, Nelson took her efforts a step further and began hauling recyclable materials from her relatives’ homes in Springville as well. Before long, she had yet another personal campaign going, and soon Springville city government saw the light as well.

“I just feel like if you believe in something—and I believe in taking care of our resources—you should be asking questions of the right people,” Nelson explained.

For Nelson, sustainability as a way of life is best taught within the home, or within wards and communities. The key, she said, is increasing personal awareness, and cultivating an attitude of responsibility, while using church teachings as a foundation.

“I think God gave us a beautiful earth to take care of, and we are stewards,” Nelson said. “If you have this beautiful world, why do you throw trash out and mess it up?”

When children are raised to respect and value the earth, those lessons stick. According to Jamir Lopez, who last fall founded an off-campus recycling service called Think Green, Recycle, interest in recycling and sustainability is strong among BYU students.

“Overall, LDS people know it’s better [to take care of the earth],” Lopez said. “When people hear about us, they go nuts. Our customers are very excited.”

Since Think Green, Recycle began collecting recyclable materials for subscribers in August 2011, nearly 300 BYU students have signed up for the service, Lopez said. And he, too, said his upbringing inspired him to go green, particularly in his career.

“I’ve always known that whatever I do should benefit the world and my fellow man,” he said.

All creatures great and small

While initiatives such as these have certainly benefitted local communities, humans aren’t the only species to benefit from church members’ desire to act as the earth’s stewards. The greater sage grouse, an endangered species of bird native to Western rangelands, may one day owe members its life.

Though its habitat once spanned thousands of acres of sagebrush scrubland, populations of sage grouse across the nation are in rapid decline, and the conditions leading to their demise are complex and not yet fully understood. The sage grouse has become increasingly vulnerable to predators even as its primary sources of food—specific kinds of insects and forbs—have grown scarce. But most of the grouse’s problems all boil down to habitat loss, according to Steven Peterson, a landscape ecologist and an associate professor at BYU.

Sage grouse must compete with humans for the use of western sagebrush habitats, which are in high demand for ranching, and the sage grouse are losing. The sage grouse isn’t protected by the Endangered  Species Act—it avoiding making the list in 2010 because other species were deemed higher priorities—but Peterson said it likely will be listed in the future.

“It’s only a matter of time,” Peterson said. “If it gets listed, it’s going to change the way we use land in the west.”

But there is one area in northern Utah where sage grouse populations have increased—a church-owned ranch called Deseret Land and Livestock. Here, researchers from BYU and other organizations have dedicated their efforts to developing sustainable ranching methods, and have found that it is possible for both the ranch and the sage grouse to prosper.

These efforts were assisted by BYU students, who in addition to studying spent their nights trapping sage grouse to fit the birds with radar collars, allowing researchers to continue and finesse their work. These students, Peterson said, share his faith-based belief in the need for a sustainable lifestyle.

“We are the sixth mass extinction period, and it’s the most severe of all—we have lost tons of species,” Peterson said. But while other environmentalists argue that the loss of so many species could disrupt food chains, Peterson said he believes species should be preserved simply because scripture makes the care and keeping of the earth a human responsibility.

“We are responsible for our environment. We are stewards,” Peterson said. “We as humans we have a responsibility to take care of the earth.”


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