US Economy

Collaboration and Innovation for a Better Rural West

July 22, 2019  • Doug Decker, Senior Fellow, Hatfield School of Government, Portland State University

What do an environmental attorney, an economist, a recovering county judge, the attorney general for a Tribal nation, a university professor, and a non-profit leader have in common?  A commitment to shared stewardship, vibrant communities, and rural innovation, of course!

The most recent America’s Rural Opportunity event brought together panelists from a forest collaborative, tribal government, environmental group and stewardship organization in Idaho and Oregon. Together, they explored how tension brought about by changes in natural resource management and local economies has catalyzed new alliances among interests that have been polarized for decades.

Click on the video to watch the entire June 10th conversation.

Mark Haggerty from Headwaters Economics set the context, highlighting data and trends that pervade the rural West. More than half of the rural west is comprised of public lands owned and managed by states or the federal government. This reality is ever-present and means land stewardship has an outsized impact on community and economic development in the west. Today, diverging rural and urban economies, changes in public policy and increasingly complex natural resource needs have stacked the odds against many rural communities.

“It’s very difficult for local communities to understand and navigate how all these competing interests affect their opportunities and the role of public lands in their local economies,” Haggerty told the audience. “That difficulty in navigating is becoming ever harder to reconcile given changes in the economy.”

The June 10th discussion, held in Portland, Oregon, featured rural leaders who have taken on that navigation, working across divided local public opinion, fractured economies, confusing policy and regulation, and litigation to forge productive local partnerships that benefit rural communities and their surrounding landscapes.

What did panelists point to as key ingredients that enable partnership among long-time opponents? One clear factor is dire and spiraling economic conditions and ecological challenges that threaten a community’s basic viability. Another critical factor is a set of community members – often with backs against the wall – who determine that working together is the best remaining long-term option.

After that, it’s a slow process of listening and building trust.

“It took three long years of developing relationships with people you don’t like initially and think you can never understand,” offered former Grant County Commissioner Mark Webb.  One of those people, panelist Susan Jane Brown, an environmental litigator, was invited to the rural eastern Oregon county to meet with locals and understand the impact of her group’s successful litigation, which had effectively shut down timber harvests on nearby National Forest land. That led to further conversation – and new action.

These days, the two leaders have built a trusting working relationship built on mutual respect.

Ultimately, their conversations across polarized views led to a common desire to understand their shared interests. Brown, Webb and others found they could agree on some projects that improved forest health while also creating jobs and other economic activity. This work led to formation of the Blue Mountains Forest Partners, a collaborative group that considers proposed forest projects and then provides feedback to the public land management agencies.

Billy Barquin, Attorney General of the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, reported ways that Tribal leadership was able to build more productive relationships with the local non-tribal community. Experiencing a collapsing ecosystem, the Tribe stepped in to fund scientific research, provide resources and new energy for an effort to preserve the natural landscape while creating jobs. Stagnant and fragmented authority among local, state, federal and Tribal authorities has given way to a Tribally-led collaborative that is creating jobs by restoring forests and re-growing endangered species populations across the region.

Local-led initiatives for forest restoration face challenges in places like Salmon, Idaho, where more than 90% of land is federally owned. Toni Ruth, executive director of Salmon Valley Stewardship, grounded this challenge in the context of demographic shifts and changing federal land management policy. To combat job losses and outmigration of a younger generation, Salmon Valley Stewardship spearheaded a new initiative that changed Forest Service contracting in the region from a “lowest-bid” to a “highest value” model. This policy innovation means that federal contracting is doing a better job of growing jobs in the community while at the same time restoring natural landscapes.

All told, the data presented by Haggerty clearly shows that more of these innovative, cross-interest collaborations are needed. While the Pacific Northwest economy is one of the fastest growing in the nation, almost 70 percent of the west’s rural counties have not replaced jobs lost during the 2007-2008 recession. He also characterized the changing nature of the West’s economy from labor to high wage service jobs that have largely migrated to cities, which have captured 73 percent of all regional job growth since 2007. A complete set of data from Haggerty’s presentation is here.

Together, data and storytelling can showcase the wider reality of innovation in rural America. The Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition continues its work to expand and support collaborative initiatives across the rural west, and the Aspen Institute’s Rural Development Innovation Group continues lifting up successful stories of rural America to advance community and economic development for all.

This America’s Rural Opportunity event was moderated by Dr. Tony Cheng, Director of the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute at Colorado State University. It was co-sponsored by the Rural Development Innovation Group, the Rural Voices for Conservation CoalitionAspen Institute Community Strategies Group, and Mark O. Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University with support from the U.S. Forest Service.