By Joe Short
I had breakfast this week with a woman who described to me the rural community where she works. It’s a town that once had the highest per capita income in its state, based on a strong natural resource economy. Now, however, those historic, natural-resource based industries have waned, and the community’s good fortune has gone downhill with it. Despite a rich landscape and working lands heritage, the town faces severe economic challenges.
This story is identical to the one that the Center tells about Millinocket, Maine, where we are deeply invested in rural community revitalization. But I was not in Maine, or even in the Northern Forest. I was at the annual meeting of the Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition (RVCC) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the town I learned about was Libby, Montana.
RVCC is a diverse coalition that works for healthy landscapes and vibrant rural communities across the American West. Since learning about the coalition in 2010, we have found strong alignment in our core values, and great benefit from working together to understand and advocate for more effective federal rural policy and investment. My breakfast conversation illustrated why: despite radically different landscapes, the underlying dynamics of resource-dependent rural communities have a lot in common. No matter where these communities are, they can gain a lot by joining voices for the betterment of their places.
That “same story, different place” resonance hit me a number of times during my two days at the coalition meeting. I met an Oregon mayor who talked about the tension that booming mountain biking use was creating between economic opportunity and local carrying capacity for visitation and land use. I learned about a Colorado financing program for wood products businesses that may have some relevance as a model in the Northern Forest. I commiserated with many people about how public misperceptions of forest management make it hard for land managers and land owners to do the management they need to do to improve forest health.
Focused on the west, RVCC talks a lot about one topic that we don’t deal with much in the Northern Forest—fire. Decades of fire suppression and resource management geared toward single species have created conditions that pose serious challenges to ecosystem and human health, and no easy solutions for dealing with them. I left feeling fortunate that the Northern Forest is a functional ecosystem where we can focus on managing forest resources for opportunity instead of restoration and risk mitigation.
Through the Center’s own advocacy and our participation in the Rural Development Innovation Group, the Center brings rural perspectives to bear on policymaking in Washington, D.C. The knowledge, ideas and connections that I brought home from Santa Fe will make me and my colleagues better able to articulate how—for example—federal investment in rural recreation infrastructure matters not just in the Northern Forest but in the Southwest, too. This makes us more effective advocates for rural communities, whether they’re here in the Maine Woods or across the country.