Volume XI | Issue 2 | Fall 2011
On a global scale, natural resources will take center stage as the planet becomes more populated and runs low on critical resources such as water. Photo: Nora Vitz Harrison / Three60

Collaboration key to successful future

Working together to manage resources will benefit an increasingly interdependent world

A snapshot of Oregon’s rural communities in the 1960s would have provided a glimpse of an economy based primarily on Oregon’s rich natural resource base.

Fifty years later, that picture has dramatically changed, particularly in communities dependent on timber. The number of lumber and plywood mills, and the number of jobs tied to timber, fell by more than half from the late 1980s through the 1990s.

The decreasing reliance on timber has had a profound effect in rural areas. Now, instead of relying on wood, more resilient communities are building their economies on a diversity of resources of which forest products are one part.

we're looking at a pretty good future

In addition, there has been a dramatic population increase in urban areas, with corresponding changes in the connections people have to rural communities, livelihoods and the land. “These changes have translated into a shift in power and influence to urban centers in the public policy arena,” says Martin Goebel, president of Sustainable Northwest, a nonprofit organization that promotes collaborative conservation. 

Goebel also notes an increase in the nonprofit sector, along with related concerns for environmental values driven largely by urban-based constituencies.

Looking ahead

What does this mean for the future of Oregon’s rural communities? Tom Gallagher, director of the Ford Institute for Community Building, says that collaboration will be the key to a successful future. “We need to really work together,” he says, “both with urban areas and within rural communities. If we are dysfunctional in local counties, we will lose to places that are more functional.

“Fifty years from now, the communities that have a collaborative nature—who are working together on things like national forest management—will find themselves in a very good position compared to others that stay mad about the past.”

Gallagher also points to a renewed awareness of the great diversity of the state, of its many distinct places with different physical and cultural characteristics. When the state was settled by Europeans in the mid-1800s, this diversity was well understood by people who lived close to the land. “But, by 50 years ago, we were kind of indifferent about watershed boundaries. Now, there is recognition of common interests within those boundaries—from water quality to education and health systems. Once you start seeing the connections within watersheds, it becomes a way to analyze situations and challenges.”

On a global scale, natural resources will take center stage as the planet becomes more populated and runs low on critical resources such as water. 

Dr. William Reckmeyer, a professor of leadership and systems at San Jose State University who makes a living out of studying complex issues, says, “We have to figure out as a species — and as a country, and as a state — how do we manage our resources more effectively in an interdependent world?” 

Finding the answers

Oregonians, who have dealt with declining natural resources for more than 20 years, may have an advantage when it comes to figuring out the answers, he says.

“For a long time, Oregonians have been really environmentally conscious,” Reckmeyer says. “They are ahead of the country in recognizing that people need to make individual decisions, but they also have to do so in a way that benefits the bigger picture. I expect that to continue.”

“Fifty years ago, we had a strong rural economy based on natural resources,” Gallagher says.“Then we were in transition, and now we are coming out into a new collaborative world where we have more people working together, more science and understanding of systems, and more awareness of the value of economic diversity, particularly one that fits the local land and people.

“If this trend continues, I think we’re looking at a pretty good future. We won’t ever go back to the way it was in the ‘50s, but we can look forward to a very productive and diverse future.” 

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