In recent years the United States has witnessed an atmosphere in constant flux on the topic of climate change. Political alliances have formed and disintegrated, legislation has passed and failed and productive discussions have devolved into heated controversy and partisan gridlock. Little consensus on an appropriate response has emerged on Capitol Hill or in political venues across the country.
Meanwhile, 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. The Center for American Progress reports that during the four decades of the 1960s through the 1990s, the annual acreage burned by wildfire in the U.S. averaged 2,879,054 acres. Between 2000 and 2009 this average rose to 6,941,952 acres burning annually, and nearly 7 million acres have already burned in 2012. From Mexico to Canada, roughly 150 million acres of trees have been killed by pine beetle. These forest health risks, coupled with a nation-wide drought that has devastated over half of all counties in the U.S., are disturbing new trends.
These changes threaten the very foundation of natural resource-based communities that depend on the land for their well-being. 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 to this dilemma will have grave repercussions for us all. However, proposed climate change solutions have often failed to recognize the important role rural communities play in adaptation and mitigation strategies. They have also rarely analyzed the potential economic benefits rural communities could accrue if given a lead role in responding to the issue. Much of this stems from misperceptions about rural America’s ability or reluctance to recognize and respond to climate change. As a result, recent attempts to address the issue have stalled due to a failure to unite rural voices in support of responsive policies.
Rural America has a key role to play in this process, and rural voices must be included in our national discussion if we are to make headway. Sustainable Northwest’s recent publication, “The Cowboy, The Outlaw, and The Kid”, is a series of stories profiling individual and community actions in response to climate change in rural America. These snapshots portray rural leaders in a light that unfortunately few have seen: as creators of innovative and feasible strategies to respond to the changes occurring in the landscapes and communities around them. They include:
• A private landowner in southwest Oregon has converted a former timber company plantation into a working forest for carbon markets. He’s restored the forest, and the amount of carbon sequestered will offset 242,000 miles of car travel per year for the next 20 years.
• 15 years ago, four of the five sawmills in Lake County, Oregon had closed and local communities were on the verge of collapse. Instead of giving up, the county rallied to create a new natural resource economy by attempting to become the nation’s first county to offset all of its fossil fuel emissions with renewable energy.
• A young woman in Trinity County, California has developed a climate change adaptation plan for her county and teamed up with the local timber industry, environmental groups, government partners and community members to implement it. They are working to move beyond the bitter divide of the timber wars, and build a new culture and economy based on conservation and sustainable land stewardship.
These rural leaders defy the stigma that is often attributed to rural America with regard to climate change, and momentum is building in other venues as well. For instance, the Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition (RVCC), convened by Sustainable Northwest, is comprised of western rural and local, regional, and national organizations that have joined together to promote balanced conservation-based approaches to the ecological and economic problems facing the West. As long-time participants in the RVCC, the individuals profiled in these stories prove that rural citizens are dedicated to taking up the toughest challenges.
We recognize that climate change is often a casualty of the political process. But these stories aren’t about red vs. blue. They focus on what is certain and simple: Real people, places, and communities joining together and rising up to do something about the real transformations they see in the real world around them. Where others have reacted out of fear and frustration, they choose to frame climate change as the art of the possible; an opportunity where others have voiced only opposition.
But 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. Agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Interior are working to identify how climate change will affect our nation’s forests and rangelands and respond to very different future conditions. One of the best things the U.S. Department of Interior and Bureau of Land Management can do right now is develop a climate change adaptation plan that will inform land management decisions, and work with rural communities to make it a reality. We know that rural Americans are rising to the challenge, and we encourage our Federal partners to do the same.
Our collective response to climate change will require unprecedented collaboration, ingenuity, and patience; but solutions stand before us, and it’s time to broaden the conversation. It must be held between communities, businesses, government, interest groups, and youth across the country willing to take leadership on the defining issue of our time. Regardless of background, geography, livelihood, or political preference, climate change is an issue that connects us unlike any other.
Rural people are the first responders to the impacts of climate change. They are those most intimately connected to the land we all depend on, and hold the collective knowledge to steward the resources that sustain us. Rural Americans like those in these stories should be recognized and supported for the invaluable work they perform, and will continue to carry out in years to come.