Knowing that Sustainable Northwest helped initiate the Rural Climate Network, what do you see as some primary goals of this network?
Like any really difficult problem, climate change is going to require an “all hands on deck” approach. Most importantly, responses have to come from the ground up if they are going to be enduring. We’re talking about an issue that’s simply too significant and personal for a response that is determined by a select number of individuals taking a distant top-down approach. To do this well requires two things in my mind: elevation of innovative practices and widespread policy change.
I see the Rural Climate Network as a first of its kind opportunity to create a cross-sector network of rural people and organizations to document climate impacts, share innovations and best practices, and develop collaborative and innovative solutions in response to climate change. Once we have those ground-tested and agreed upon approaches in mind, this group needs to organize to influence administrative policy regarding climate change and educate Congress about the threats and opportunities rural communities face. I’d also like to see the network explore and improve market-based strategies to address climate change, and work to ensure that rural communities have access to and input in these markets. Rural America is a constituency that has been largely disadvantaged and misunderstood in the climate change conversation, and this network is an opportunity to remedy that.
Climate change is presenting some real challenges in rural America as well as opportunities for innovation. What is Sustainable Northwest seeing as the key challenges and opportunities out west?
Climate change in rural America is more real than ever - especially in western forest communities. The effects are visible in drought, invasive species, abnormal wildfire, and extreme weather events. During the four decades of the 1960s through the 1990s, the annual acreage burned by wildfire in the U.S. averaged less than 3 million acres. Between 2000 and 2009 this annual average rose to 7 million acres.1 From Mexico to Canada, roughly 150 million acres of trees have been killed by pine beetle.2 Forest health risks have been coupled with an on-going drought that has devastated over half of all counties in the U.S.3 These are disturbing trends that threaten the foundation of natural resource-based communities. But the concerns are not exclusive to rural America. Forests, rivers, and farms provide invaluable services like clean air, water, food, and fiber on which both rural and urban areas depend. Failure to respond will have repercussions for us all.
Fortunately, rural America has an enormous role to play in developing climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies, and we’re already seeing leaders step up to respond. Out West, there is a rapidly growing trend in collaborative land management planning that not only promises to improve and accelerate landscape health, but is also integrating climate change considerations in decision-making for the first time. We’ve seen federal agencies like the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management incorporate climate change adaptation planning in their highest levels of direction, and really embrace that this is a priority in management of our public lands. The opportunities for renewable energy development are also tremendous, be it biomass, wind, solar, or geothermal. We’ve also seen new business models emerge that support landscape restoration, sustainable forest harvest and resource use, and green markets. The growing field of ecosystem services has enormous potential to change the way we manage resources, and what values we want to manage them for.
It’s also important to note that for rural natural resource-based communities, the issue isn’t always framed as climate change response. Often it’s just sound land management, energy conservation, and simple bottom line economics that have the greatest potential effect on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and restoring landscapes to be resilient to the effects of climate change. We’re also now getting to a place where revenue can be generated from these activities to make them sustainable and encourage greater adoption of innovative practices. The smartest responses don’t have to be complicated, they just have to be incentivized and appreciated.
What are Sustainable Northwest’s goals for the future surrounding rural communities and climate change adaptation and mitigation?
Our organization is about restoring and improving the health of the West’s landscapes and waters, and doing so in a way that rural people can make a legitimate living taking care of and sustaining these places in the long-run. If you can meet these criteria, you’ve already gone a long way to putting the pieces in place to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change. Furthermore, we don’t pretend to have all the answers, so we’ll continue to focus on working with diverse stakeholders to develop agreement on accelerating the pace and scale of forest and rangeland restoration, especially in public lands communities. That’s how we accomplish those enduring solutions that I’m talking about. A big part of this effort will include fostering the market conditions and connections for new natural resource-based businesses to take root and develop a “modern stewardship economy” in the West.
I also want to mention that rural communities can’t do this alone. Nearly 30% of U.S. territory is federal land (rising to 50% in Western states), and we need Congress and land management agencies to respond to climate change by funding and supporting investments in conservation and adaptation planning. We know that rural Americans are rising to the challenge, and we encourage our federal partners to do the same. For these reasons we’ll also continue to advocate for state and federal policies that support and incentivize innovative land management and adaptation approaches.