Meet the kids behind the historic Montana climate trial

By Lesley Clark | 06/15/2023 06:34 AM EDT

Sixteen young Montanans are fighting their state for embracing fossil fuels and worsening climate change. These are their stories.

A photo collage of images of several children who are suing Montana over climate issues.

Some of the young people who are suing Montana over climate issues include (top row, left to right) Sariel Sandoval, Kian Tanner, Claire Vlases and Mica Kantor; (middle row, left to right) Eva Lightiser, Grace Gibson-Snyder, Badge Busse, Georgianna Fischer and Taleah Hernandez; and (bottom row, left to right) Nathaniel King, Lilian D., Lander Busse and Rikki Held. POLITICO illustration; photos courtesy of Our Children's Trust

HELENA, Mont. — The 16 young people behind the first U.S. youth-led climate trial hail from places as far north in the Treasure State as Bigfork, Kalispell and the Flathead Indian Reservation and as far south as Livingston, the gateway to Yellowstone National Park.

Nearly all of them convened Monday in the state capital for the start of their historic trial, seeking to make their case that state officials violated the Montana Constitution by approving fossil fuel projects without considering damage to the climate. Where other youth-led climate lawsuits have stumbled, Held v. Montana has advanced further than any other case like it in the United States.

The youngest challenger in the Montana case was just 2 years old when the lawsuit was filed in 2020. Only Rikki Held — the lead plaintiff in the case, who took the stand in the trial Monday — was over the age of 18 when the landmark climate battle began.


Some of the young challengers have parents who are active in conservation efforts. Several of the litigants are now in college, studying climate and environmental issues. This week, they sat patiently on the wooden benches in the Lewis and Clark County courthouse, listening as experts detailed the rising threats posed by a warming planet.

Most of the young people have spent their lives in Montana, fishing the state’s rivers and skiing its mountains. Several of the young climate activists have health conditions, such as asthma, which they say is made worse by wildfire seasons that are getting longer and hotter.

Here are their stories:

Rikki Held

Held, the eldest of the Montana climate challengers, grew up on her family’s 7,000-acre ranch in the town of Broadus in southeast Montana.

The first to testify in the case that bears her name, she struggled for composure on the witness stand Monday, describing the toll of wildfires, drought, flooding, heat waves and storms that are getting more powerful. In 2012, a large wildfire swept the ranch and burned power lines, leaving her family without electricity for a month.

“You just have to keep working through it,” she said haltingly. “There’s just always things to get done on the ranch. That’s our livelihood and we can’t stop.”

Held, who majored in environmental science at Colorado College, said she realizes climate change is global but added, “Montana needs to do something and take responsibility for our part. You can’t just blow it off and do nothing about it.”

She said she remains optimistic: “Sometimes when I think about all these things, it’s stressful, and it hits you. But I know there’s so many good people working for our future.”

Badge and Lander Busse

The Busse brothers were 12 and 15 when the lawsuit was filed and were born and raised in Kalispell, a mountain town in Montana’s Flathead Valley. Avid outdoor enthusiasts, the Busse brothers have seen the closure of fisheries, and their ability to raft on local rivers has been restricted — and in some cases prevented — due to low water levels, the lawsuit says.

Badge, who was named after Badger-Two Medicine, a roadless wilderness area south of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, took the witness stand Tuesday. He described his grief at seeing damage in the area from climate-fueled wildfires.

“I’m very happy to be there fishing and being in my namesake, but it’s saddening, it’s hard to look at,” Badge said as screens in the courtroom flashed pictures of him standing before a stand of fire-blackened trees.

He recalled a time when wildfires got close enough to the family house that they prepared to flee the only home he’s ever known. The fire was contained, but Badge said the long wildfire season in Montana is “depressing” and that he often has to stay indoors to avoid damage to his lungs.

Not being outdoors, he said, “is kind of just taking a part away from you as a Montanan,” he said.

Every young person testified that they were eager to be part of the lawsuit, though Badge told the court that he tries not to talk about his participation because he lives in a “kind of polarized area of the state.” He added he’s already lost one friend after they “got into a heated debate over climate change.”

Badge and Lander’s father, Ryan, was a Biden appointee to the Hunting and Wildlife Conservation Council, an advisory committee that assists the Interior Department. He is also a former gun industry executive who is now a senior adviser to the gun safety group Giffords.

Sariel Sandoval

Sandoval, who was 17 when the climate lawsuit was filed in 2020, grew up on the Flathead Indian Reservation as a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. She’s now an undergraduate pursuing an engineering degree at the University of California, Berkeley.

She took the witness stand Wednesday, noting that she can top Californians when it comes to living with wildfires.

“They’re like, ‘Well our fire season,’ and I say, ‘Let me tell you about Montana,'” she said. “I can’t even count how many wildfires we have each summer.”

Sandoval worked at a local campground the summer after she graduated from high school, but lost several weeks of pay due to a nearby wildfire that prompted evacuations, destroyed homes and jumped a highway. During cross-examination, the state noted that the fire was started by arsonist.

Sandoval, who grabbed for a tissue several times on the stand, said she believes her community could adapt to climate change but questioned why it has to.

“Native communities have literally survived the apocalypse, they’ve lived through genocide, assimilation, relocation, termination and so many other traumas,” she said. “We can definitely adapt and survive climate change, but that doesn’t make it right.”

Kian Tanner

Tanner, who was 14 in 2020, grew up in Bigfork and is a fly fishing enthusiast who appeared in a 2019 Sportsman Channel documentary, “In the Heart of the Rockies,” with his father, Todd Tanner, who leads Conservation Hawks, an organization that educates and engages hunters and anglers on climate change.

The complaint notes that Kian Tanner worries about climate change and has had to cancel fishing trips due to warm water temperatures and low water.

“Climate change is the present and future threat of the world,” he told the Flathead Beacon. “Our world is going to turn to fire, and I don’t think that anyone wants to live in a burning world.”

Georgianna Fischer

Fischer, who was 17 when the climate lawsuit was filed, grew up in Bozeman and was a competitive Nordic skier from a young age, training 11 months of the year and practicing 15 hours a day. She is now a student at the University of New Hampshire and a member of the ski team, majoring in environmental science.

The lawsuit charges that climate change has disrupted Fischer’s life by decreasing the amount of snow, curtailing her training season. It notes that in recent years, there was not enough snow to groom trails or create tracks until January, though historically, tracks were created in November.

Fischer’s great-grandmother worked to protect Montana’s Lee Metcalf Wilderness, testifying before Congress about how valuable the land was in its natural state, said Our Children’s Trust, the Oregon-based law firm representing the young climate activists in the Montana case. The 2,800-acre refuge located in the Bitterroot River Valley of southwest Montana was established in 1964.

Grace Gibson-Snyder

Gibson-Snyder, who was 16 in 2020, grew up in Missoula and has been active in school groups and service projects aimed at reducing plastic waste.

She took the stand in the trial Monday, noting that wildfires in the state got so bad that her soccer matches and practices were “smoked out.” At home, she said, it was “my job to close the windows to make sure the smoke doesn’t get into the house so we have some safe haven.”

Attorneys for the young people made certain to underscore their ties to Montana, with Gibson-Snyder noting that she is the fifth generation of her family to be born in the state — and the sixth generation to live there. Her great-great-great grandmother, she noted, arrived in 1866 from Buffalo, N.Y.

A freshman at Yale University, Gibson-Snyder said she plans to study global affairs and focus on environmental policy. She said she feels a “burden” that climate change is her responsibility to fix.

A verdict that holds the state accountable on climate “would take a large portion of the weight off,” she said. “To know that my government is protecting me and doing what it should.”

Eva Lighthiser

Lighthiser, who was 14 when the suit was filed, grew up in Livingston in southwestern Montana, just north of Yellowstone National Park. Her family had to sell their home and move in with her grandparents after higher-than-average temperatures melted a snowpack, flooding a river near their home and damaging a nearby bridge.

She took the witness stand Monday to describe her worries about climate change, talking about volunteering to fill sandbags and clean out people’s homes after the Yellowstone River flooded last June.

“My future feels uncertain,” she said. “I really don’t know how it’s going to play out.”

She said there is no way of predicting how much worse storms will get, giving her a “strong sense of losing control and just having this sense of hopelessness.”

Winning the case, she said, “would ignite a sense of hope. Kind of like the light at the end of a tunnel, giving me the sense that we’re working in the right direction.”

Mica Kantor

Kantor, who was 11 when the suit was filed, lives in Missoula and began to worry about climate change as a 4-year-old when he saw a documentary about the retreat of the world’s glaciers.

He participated in climate strikes at his school on most Fridays and wrote to elected officials, urging them to rethink their positions on human-caused warming. He took the stand Tuesday, as his attorneys showed pictures of him at protests, including one that showed him holding a sign that read, “Honk for Renewables” in front of the state’s largest public utility.

He said under questioning that his worries about climate change make him anxious.

“It can make it hard to fall asleep,” he told the court, “just thinking about what the future entails.”

An avid runner, Kantor said he was diagnosed with asthma this spring and that smoke from frequent climate-fueled wildfires has limited his training and time outdoors.

He read a poem he wrote when he was “stuck in the basement for days” — exiled to the lower level because his family had Covid-19, and he was unable to get outside because wildfire smoke was too thick.

“I’m a prisoner in my own home,” he wrote, lamenting that climate change was likely to make both pandemics and wildfires more frequent. “Alone and wondering. What is my future? Is there one? Why is no one listening? Do they not care?”

Olivia Vesovich

Vesovich, who was 16 in 2020, is now a student at the University of Montana.

She has exercise-induced asthma and said the state’s wildfire season — which gets longer every year as the summers get hotter and drier — exacerbates her condition and forces her indoors.

The lawsuit, she said, gives her an outlet for anxiety she’s felt ever since a grade-school teacher told her class that their children may be the last generation to see Montana’s glaciers.

She also participated in climate talks at her school, helped set up recycling and composting programs and turned to art projects to express the worries she has about the changing planet.

“There is a lot of climate despair,” she told E&E News of herself and her peers.

“It’s just this giant, daunting task that’s so massive,” she continued. “I felt no matter how hard I worked and put my heart and soul into climate activism, it wouldn’t get any better. That’s why I wanted to be part of the case.”

Nathaniel and Jeffrey King

The youngest challengers in the climate lawsuit, the King brothers, were just 2 and 6 years old when the case was filed. They live in Montana City, just south of Helena. The complaint notes that Jeffrey has a lung condition and is susceptible to respiratory infections and that Nathaniel has twice ended up in the emergency room with difficulty breathing.

The lawsuit charges that climate disruption is making Montana’s wildfire season longer and more severe, posing a threat to the siblings’ health, given their young ages and respiratory health conditions.

They’re “kept indoors when the air is filled with wildfire smoke and they are unable to go hiking, camping, or participate in other outdoor activities that are central to their lifestyle, family, and overall well-being,” the complaint says.

Claire Vlases

Vlases, who was 17 at the time of the filing, was president of her high school’s Solar Club and as a middle schooler raised $120,000 to put solar panels on municipal buildings in her hometown of Bozeman. But the climate suit charges that despite her work, Montana law limits the size of solar panel arrays and her school — which received one of the installations — still must buy energy.

She worked as a ski instructor at Big Sky Resort, but the complaint notes that her ability to earn money is jeopardized by climate change, which is causing a decrease in Montana’s winter snowpack. “If there is not enough snow and too few visitors, Claire is sent home without working her scheduled shift,” the suit says.

Vlases told Kaiser Health News that she was too young to vote when the lawsuit was filed.

“There are three branches of government for a reason,” said Vlases. “If I’m not able to use the other two, this is my way, and it’s a way for kids, to have our voices heard.”

Lilian and Ruby D.

Lilian and Ruby, sisters who were 9 and 11 when the lawsuit was filed, live in Bozeman and are of Crow descent and members of the Crow Tribe of Montana.

They watched from the courtroom Wednesday as their father, Shane Doyle, took the stand to testify on their behalf, describing how extreme weather has disrupted their tribal traditions, including the annual Crow Fair on the Crow Reservation in southern Montana.

Lilian and Ruby look forward to the August fair all year, but climate change has made holding the century-old tribal gathering precarious, he said. The tribal family reunion has twice been scrapped in the past decade because of torrential rain — and the heat often makes it difficult for the girls to wear the traditional, heavily embroidered dresses.

“Extreme weather events are a highlight of the Crow Fair now,” he said.

Ruby was diagnosed with asthma at 8, and the family prefers to keep her inside during wildfire season. “It’s a bummer,” Doyle said. In Montana, he added, “you only get three months of summer. You get this chance not to be in school, or put on a heavy coat, but now you’re stuck inside? It’s a disappointment.”

The Bridger Mountains to the north of Bozeman are visible from their home, Doyle said, but “there have been weeks at a time when we can barely see a silhouette, and we know it’s not healthy to have the kids out.”

The lawsuit says that wildfires are also making cultural experiences, such as building tepees, more difficult. The conical tents can only be built out of lodgepole pine, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to find the trees.

Joining the climate lawsuit was an easy decision for the girls, Doyle said, given their “cultural perspective.” He noted Crow are taught they have three mothers, including the Earth, and that taking care of the planet is their responsibility.

Taleah Hernández

Hernández was 16 at the time the Montana climate lawsuit was filed and lived in Polson, on the Flathead Indian Reservation.

The complaint notes that she enjoys ice skating on Flathead Lake but was unable to in 2019 because warming temperatures meant there wasn’t enough ice on the water.

Now a freshman at Montana State University, Hernández is studying animal science and Hispanic studies and told GreenMatters that she got involved with the case because she’s seen “firsthand how our environment is being messed up.”

The case is “all about helping Montana to protect Montana for future generations,” she said. “We live in such a beautiful place, and the best way to preserve that is to start protecting it now.”