A plan to save the sage grouse was a rare instance where ranchers, the timber industry, scientists, landowners and environmentalists all agreed on something
At 5am, the day is black, and resounds with the steady drum of rain. My husband Rich is getting ready for work. He oils his leather gloves and fills a Thermos. He’ll spend a 10-hour day in the downpour: tramping through thorny salmonberry and wading through the roaring creeks.
We live in the Oregon Coast Range, a region that’s been in steady economic decline since the sawmills began shutting down in the late 1980s. Before Rich got this job we were living hand to mouth. Now things are looking up. It won’t make us wealthy, but Rich has scored one of the best jobs in our remote neck of the woods.
He works for the Siuslaw Watershed Council, an organization that partners with land owners to restore stream habitat for Coho salmon. The council is part of a quiet but widespread movement toward collaborative conservation.
In the past two decades, rural people across the west have formed successful coalitions to rehabilitate ecosystems while simultaneously providing jobs to stimulate destitute economies. As divisive rhetoric dominates the American story, backwater communities have been making small but vital steps to bridge the red/blue divide.
“We must have both productivity and protection on the same landscape,” says Johnny Sundstrom, a guiding force in community-based conservation and the track coach at our local high school. Sundstrom is quick to point out that salmon habitat is merely a starting point. “Recovery plans should deal with all species – including humans,” he says. He acknowledges that the restoration economy will never take the place of five mills running two shifts, but notes that his organization spent $330,000 on a single project last year.
In our tiny economy, that’s something.
Farther east, Wallowa County (population 7,000) is a remarkable economic success story. This notoriously red county came out swinging for Donald Trump (67.2%), yet it boasts one of the most progressive community development plans in rural America. This is due, in part, to Wallowa Resources, a local group that formed in the wake of the mill closures of the 1990s. The grassroots organization supported the launch of nine new businesses, with a focus on renewable energy and sustainable logging.
Projects include watershed restoration, small-scale hydropower, partnering with ranchers to control noxious weeds, and turning the byproducts of forest restoration into poles and firewood.
Wallowa County’s focus on economic development is impressive, but collaborative restoration is more typically centered on saving a specific species.