By: Rob Riley
To some, “rural” is an abstract notion, sometimes conjuring images of farms, forests, or mountains, but less often bringing to mind the people who live in rural places. Even less do we consider the ways that rural life has shaped our nation.
In the Northern Forest for instance — 30 million acres spanning northern Maine through northern New York — people living in rural communities within this vast forest forged new industries and drove commerce by sawing lumber and making paper, generating electricity from racing rivers, and farming rugged land to feed people in growing cities.
Their hard work helped to accelerate the country into prosperity while earning good livings for their families. But nothing is static. Economies and trade evolve. Climate changes. Land and industry ownership change. Politics change. And as a result, people and communities change. And the change can be devastating.
When economies and communities begin to fail, people and the landscape pay the price. The assets that had once been the source of prosperity begin to fall in to disrepair. That is when communities face change on a grand scale.
You can watch the panel discussion I was part of at the Aspen Ideas Festival:
Last week, President Trump presented a budget blueprint that decimates programs critical to rural communities. This “skinny budget” was “dropped” (as they say in DC) while I was in Washington, DC, attending two events that showcased just how important these programs can be.
The first event was an Aspen Institute Summit on Inequality and Opportunity, which was designed to identify the structural challenges for marginalized people in the U.S. and highlight innovative (and inspiring) approaches to tackling these problems. The second was the America’s Rural Opportunity series where the Center, the Aspen Institute and the US Endowment for Forestry and Communities highlighted innovation and opportunity in rural places.
In both events, stories of entrepreneurial and community success highlighted individual initiative, grit and persistence in the face of innumerable obstacles. Speakers reflected on the non-linear path to success and the “instability factor”– the feeling of being always on the edge of not making it– and how, if not for unique partnerships, a little capital, a bit of support by others, they might have given up. And if they had given up, in one example, it would have meant that 20 new jobs would NOT have been created in a family-owned restaurant in rural Texas. The speakers shared inspiring stories and, when asked about the president’s budget, were clear in their dismay.
The election highlighted deep divisions in this country, breaking down according to where one lives, what one looks like, how one sees his or her current job prospects, or preferences for what the country’s role is around the globe, and more.
Real and perceived lack of economic opportunity seemed to drive many voting decisions. Places where former manufacturing hubs and resource-based economies once ruled are now in the midst of a lengthy decline. The potential of change reigned in these places.
What wasn’t mentioned in the post-election commentary is that rural places have the ideas and the potential to transform themselves, as long as they have the right resources and an innovative approach.
On the federal level, we look toward how the new administration will prioritize the concerns of people in the Northern Forest. For years, we’ve enjoyed strong relationships with agencies such as the Department of Agriculture-Rural Development and the Forest Service, Economic Development Administration, and more. So now what?
I wanted to share a great chain reaction that I’ve witnessed now popping up in three different locations across the Northern Forest. We think it was inspired by the Northern Forest Regional Symposium, hosted by The Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund and the Northern Forest Center a year ago.
The Symposium put special emphasis on showcasing initiatives and ideas that had traction. So, Clyde Rabideau, mayor of Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks showcased a hiking challenge to bag all 6 peaks in the area, the Saranac 6ers. Finishers get the satisfaction of ringing the bell in town and getting a badge. Saranac Lake can use the initiative as a tool to promote and market the area.