By Shanna Ratner, Principal, Yellow Wood Associates
When I started Yellow Wood Associates in 1985, it was with the idea of that the world would be a better place if rural people were able to act as effective stewards of the natural resources that surround them and be rewarded for it. That led us to specialize in natural resource-based community economic development.
Over 26 years, we've discovered lots of barriers to effective local stewardship, especially for poor rural communities. Resources are often owned and controlled by external forces. Local people lack information about the quantity, quality and potential of the resources surrounding them. Policies and regulations don't support local engagement. Training in stewardship approaches is not readily available. Management expertise is lacking. Market forces encourage exploitation of people and resources.
Today, as we struggle to cope with climate change, population growth, increased effective global demand for goods and services, and instability caused by over reliance on fossil fuels, the need for new approaches to stewardship of natural resources has become even more evident.
Increasingly, here in the United States, we are beginning to imagine regional solutions; however "regional” is too often taken to mean “metro and adjacent counties” when really it should mean metro, suburban and rural areas. Why? Because cities depend (and could increasingly depend) for clean air, clean water, food, fiber, recreation, labor, renewable energy, and markets for urban goods and services on rural areas. New York City understood this when it chose to invest in improved resource stewardship in the (rural) Catskills, its source of clean water, rather than in a water filtration plant within the city limits. New York City recognized that it is much less costly to protect water quality at the source, by investing in the infrastructure, training, public education, and innovation required to support rural people in changing their behaviors to benefit an entire region, than it is to restore water quality once it has degraded. New York City's investment in the Catskills isn't charity; it's an investment made with the clear expectation of a tangible return in the form of clean water.
We now know that the process of industrialization has resulted in significant exploitation and degradation of the natural (and human) resource base. Bringing these resources (soil, water, air, wetlands, croplands, forestlands, lakes, streams, pollinators, etc.) back to a productive state in which they can help meet the needs of entire regions, will require intentional investment in rural areas that increases the capacity of rural people to restore, manage, and sustain these resources for the benefit of entire regions. We also need to invest in new resource management approaches to available renewable resources. Ultimately, rural resources cannot be “protected” for the benefit of metro and suburban areas without engaging rural people in their protection and development in ways that are mutually beneficial. If we continue to separate rural development from regional development, we are likely to continue unsustainable patterns of rural resource exploitation.
How can we join hands with consumers and decision-makers in urban and suburban areas to identify new opportunities to funnel investment that sticks in rural areas for the benefit of entire regions? If we can answer this question, we can begin to overcome the rural/urban divide and create allies among our urban friends. As they recognize the value to their own communities of investing in the productive and innovative capacity of rural places, together we can speak truth to power with a force beyond what rural America can hope to achieve by organizing within its own ranks.