Q&A: Bridging the Rural-Urban ‘Conservation Gap’

An Oregon resident who helps maintain and protect backcountry trails in the National Forest says urban conservation groups aren’t doing enough to find common ground with rural residents. It’s there, he says, if you know how to look for it.

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Urban-based conservation groups need get out of their isolated circles and do a better job of including rural communities in their efforts to protect public lands, says the director of a hiking-trail association in southern Oregon.

Gabriel Howe, executive director of the Siskiyou Mountain Club, describes himself as a “proud Oregon boy with a barrel chest, tough feet, and calloused hands.”

He’s also a “bleeding heart conservationist.”

In an opinion piece in the January 1 Oregonian, Howe arg ued that some urban conservation groups in his state have looked down their noses at rural residents and created unnecessary and unproductive resentments in rural areas. They tend to focus on the needs of urban members and leave potential rural allies out in the cold, he said.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this criticism. But Howe’s op/ed articulated the complaint so skillfully, I asked him to elaborate for the Daily Yonder.

He says there is a path to agreement between urban and rural conservationists, but we might have to clear away a little brush to make it walkable.

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Tim Marema: You wrote in the Oregonian that urban-based wilderness protection groups and other conservationists need to be working harder to include rural communities. I’m curious, first of all, what feedback you’ve gotten from the column.

Gabe Howe: I’ve gotten significantly more [feedback] from this than I have from other [op/eds]. Most of the people who have called have been folks who, from what I can tell, did not read the whole article and people from political groups who think I might be an ally for them. I’ve gotten calls from anywhere from like pro-gun groups to anti-immigration groups, and that’s been the majority of feedback … I just don’t have any interest in those organizations. … What I’ve told all of them is, “Hey, you know, I think you should give the article a second look and see who I really am because I don’t affiliate with those groups.” It’s been interesting.

Tim: Are you saying that organizations from the right have done a better job communicating with rural people?

Yes, because they are the ones in the communities. It’s very grassroots. … They’re face to face with their boots on the ground, and that’s what rural people respond to, from what I’ve seen. I mean, I kind of live in a bubble. Ashland, Oregon, it’s 28,000 residents, but it’s very much different from the [surrounding] rural communities. It’s largely liberal. There’s an Oregon Shakespeare Festival here, there’s a university here so. … People who hear my voice say, “Well he’s an Ashland guy. He’s not a Grants Pass or a Medford or a Cave Junction guy.” But I do feel a connection with those communities because I work so much in them.

Outside groups come into it with an agenda, but when you’re the underdog, you’ve got to understand you’re the underdog. I mean, you’ve got to understand that … you don’t have the position that the mill owner has or the district ranger has. Your opinion is not the popular one and so in my opinion, when they have tried … public meetings where they try to get support, with some success, [they need to] just soften the rhetoric a little bit so that people can connect with them and then connect with their hearts and really see what people want. Because these rural communities are not as extreme as they’ve been made out to be.

Tim: What has the urban response been?

Gabe: One person in an email said, “Hey, you know, you’re right on,” and was very supportive. But the other couple of responses [from people who identified as urban] were in line with the sentiment of, “This sounds good on paper, but it doesn’t work and that there’s a reason that we operate within these circles and stay within them.” Basically, they said when they’ve reached out to people in rural Oregon, the responses are totally unreasonable and that there’s no way to work [with rural communities].

Tim: What do you think it would it take for national, urban-based environmental groups to work more productively with rural communities?

Gabe: I don’t know about national environmental groups. … [In Oregon] I think that in a way, they have to completely rebrand. They’d have to change the names of their organizations because they just leave such a bad taste in people’s mouth. They would have to totally revamp the way that they operate.

Right now, basically fund raising is number one [for those groups], and they’ll use whatever rhetoric they can to empower their urban supporters to keep them operating fiscally. They make sure the organizations don’t lose their financial power. [To work more successfully with rural communities] they’d have to kind of go back to the book there and say, “You know what? [Fundraising is] not our number one concern. Our number one concern is our mission.” I think that then [the work] would look like developing allies in these communities and [working with] ambassadors and advocates.

Tim: Do traditional environmental groups have any support in rural areas?

Gabe: These groups do have some support in these communities. It’s not like it’s a 100% constituency that gets the bad taste in mouth. I think that it means [urban-based environmental groups would need to be] strengthening those relationships and getting those folks to initiate. The first phase of it would be just listening. Like I said, you’ve got to hear what people really want and so it would take the form of probably public meetings or forums or even just social get-togethers of saying “what do we want regarding public lands?” I think through that they would find some really strong points of agreement.

Gabe Howe helps fell a dead tree that was creating a hazard along the Pilot Rock Trail in the Soda Mountain. Wilderness
Gabe Howe helps fell a dead tree that was creating a hazard along the Pilot Rock Trail in the Soda Mountain. Wilderness

Tim: Can you give an example?

Gabe: [The potential sell-off of public land] is the big conservation issue coming up in Oregon. If the question was framed to [rural residents] that this means next year when you go up to your favorite hunting spot, there’s a locked gate, or there’s a toll booth, or there’s someone in a uniform telling you can’t go here, how would that make you feel? Right now [the urban environmental movement] has framed the question as “these places are for wildlife and endangered species.” The idea of human interaction with our public landscapes isn’t in the conservationists’ playbook. It’s all about saving endangered species and wildlife and that sort of thing.

Tim: In your experience, how do long-term rural residents relate to public lands?

Gabe; Rural communities … are intimately connected with these public lands. They use them, they ride in them, they hunt in them, they fish in them. There’s obviously some negative stuff that goes on out there, too, but overwhelmingly they have a positive connection with public lands, in my view.

Tim: Tell me about the organization you work for, the Siskiyou Mountain Club.

Gabe: We’re a small non-profit with about a $170,000 budget and we formed to restore, maintain, and promote primitive trails in the Siskiyou backcountry. We provide opportunities for volunteers to get out. Every year we hire an in-house trail crew who does the heavy lifting for us. We also just lead community hikes and events to promote the trails and the landscapes in which we work. We have don’t take political stances. We’re not a public land advocacy group. We have 425 members from across the political spectrum from the very, very far right to the very, very far left here in Ashland.

I formed the organization with my wife back in 2010 because we were watching our backcountry trails, specifically in some of our federal wilderness areas, which we have a lot of in southern Oregon. They were disappearing because of two things: budget cuts that started with the George W. Bush era of federal management and also these extreme wildfires. We were watching some of our favorite trails fill in with piles and piles of dead trees and nobody was doing anything about it. Then [we formed] a small group of volunteers to start working on some of those trails. From that, we grew. Our operations got really good and we ended up being in a position where we could hire a crew for the summer and they do all the heavy lifting and it’s pretty extraordinary what these groups do.

Tim: Do you feel that there’s a cultural divide between rural and urban communities?

Gabe: I do believe that there are fundamental American values that transcend urban, rural, cultural divides and I think that America is a place that is made up of many cultures and many subcultures. That fundamentally, that’s what makes us strong. I don’t think that having different cultural values and customs and beliefs is something that fundamentally divides us. I think that that diversity is something that actually … That’s what America is. I think we need it all. I think we need to preserve rural culture. I think that we need to have urban culture and I think though that what has happened is that people don’t feel like they can go back and forth. That’s really what we need to be able to do is go experience these places and these people and feel welcome wherever we are.

 

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