Rob Riley: America Must Invest in its Rural Communities

We are heartened by new attention and thought being devoted to rural community and economic development in our region. A recent essay by Rob Riley, President of the Northern Forest Center, describes a vision of rural communities that build wealth through sustainable use of natural assets, respecting cultural heritage, investing in key infrastructure and welcoming new residents to participate in that future. Here's that essay: 

America Must Invest in its Rural Communities

To some, “rural” is an abstract notion, sometimes conjuring images of farms, forests, or mountains, but less often bringing to mind the people who live in rural places. Even less do we consider the ways that rural life has shaped our nation.

In the Northern Forest for instance — 30 million acres spanning northern Maine through northern New York — people living in rural communities within this vast forest forged new industries and drove commerce by sawing lumber and making paper, generating electricity from racing rivers, and farming rugged land to feed people in growing cities.

Their hard work helped to accelerate the country into prosperity while earning good livings for their families. But nothing is static. Economies and trade evolve. Climate changes. Land and industry ownership change. Politics change. And as a result, people and communities change. And the change can be devastating.

When economies and communities begin to fail, people and the landscape pay the price.  The assets that had once been the source of prosperity begin to fall in to disrepair. That is when communities face change on a grand scale…

Just as Detroit had to reinvent itself following the decline of the automotive industry, rural places from Appalachia to the Northern Forest to Central Wisconsin are restructuring. They are looking for new means of economic development based on their community’s natural assets. The prize this time, however, will be to create a new economic system that is both ecologically sustainable and good for the community over the long haul.

Significant investment, leadership, and capacity (along with a lot of vision, determination and luck) are required to transition to the next era or the community will vanish.

Rural places have deep culture and heritage tied to the interconnection between the landscape and the community. There are opportunities to reposition rural communities and take advantage of the unique and authentic experiences they offer. But the conditions must be right, and today those include fast broadband and consistent cellular coverage (not the “can-you-hear-me-now?” service common in many places).

Here’s what’s possible: a community in which custom designed mountain biking or ski trails are accessible from downtown; heat is produced by local, renewable wood (rather than by fossil fuel shipped across the country or the world); local schools are providing innovative outdoor classroom experiences for kids; food is grown and supplied locally; the forest is a community asset to safeguard the watershed, provide recreation, critical habitat, and forest products. The community sees its future as tied to the sustainable use of the region’s natural assets and welcomes new residents to participate in its future.

The new value proposition is based on opportunity. It includes stewardship of the landscape and equitable access to quality education, health care and employment. The new economic structure empowers local, adds value, and keeps wealth in the community. We need new ways to measure success. Here are the things we believe are crucial to remaking our rural economy and strengthening its communities:

  • A commitment to treat the land well, honor its many values, and steward it for future generations is essential to successful long-term community and economic development;
  • Use and conservation of the region’s natural resources should directly benefit local communities;
  • Empowered local voices and ideas will be the foundation of the region’s long-term vitality;
  • Integrated approaches to economic, community and environmental issues are fundamental to bringing people together, reducing conflicts and accelerating change;
  • Regional cooperation and learning is vital to addressing systemic rural challenges; and
  • Bold vision, leadership and risk-taking are needed to capitalize on emerging opportunities.

If we take this path, we’ll find a cell signal when visiting Millinocket, Maine. We’ll have fast enough internet service to connect to the world from Lancaster, New Hampshire. We’ll have good schools and medical facilities to support communities like Newport, Vermont, or Saranac Lake, New York. And with these pieces in place, we’ll find that “rural” is more than a vague notion. Rural will be known for its people, their innovation, and the opportunity it presents for the nation.

This blog first appeared on the Aspen Ideas Festival Website. Rob presented on this topic in July 2017 at the Aspen Ideas Festival.