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New conservation frontiers in the rural West

They may disagree about politics or religion, but the one thing people in rural communities can agree on is their love of the land.

“In order to live in our communities, we have to talk to people we completely disagree with,” said Melanie Parker, executive director of the Montana-based nonprofit Northwest Connections, at last week’s Solutions Seminar.

Parker explained the two extremes of rural land management: complete protection—designating a wilderness or area protected for endangered species, or complete exploitation—overusing an area until it’s barren.

“There’s got to be a better way,” Parker said.

Wallowa County, Oregon. Photo: Sam Beebe, Ecotrust

Indeed, both Northwest Connections and a sister organization in Northeast Oregon called Wallowa Resources have been forging a better way in their own communities for more than fifteen years. Both organizations use what they call “place-based collaboration” to connect the local people, land, and animals—conserving the environment while creating jobs in restoration, local renewable energy projects, geotourism, and education.

In the face of economic recession and environmental degradation, the organizations work to keep money and jobs within their local communities. For instance, Northwest Connections hosts ecological field courses in collaboration with universities across the country. Students work with rural residents to learn about, monitor, and restore endangered species and habitat.

“We think of these students as the future leaders of collaborative, place-based conservation,” she said.

Both organizations have initiated fuel reduction programs, which provide local jobs while mitigating forest fire danger. Wallowa Resources combines these forest management practices with renewable energy development projects—utilizing the harvested wood in a new biomass boiler to heat the public school.

These organizations are proving that we can have both healthy economies and healthy landscapes. It’s not a matter of either-or.

“It’s time to stop throwing stones at each other,” said Nils Christoffersen of Wallowa Resources, “and it’s time to start working together.”


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