A 34-year-old Oregon rancher whose death announcement reverberated from the American West to the Massailand of Kenya will be honored this week by the conservationists with whom he worked to build more sustainable rural communities.
Shiloh Sundstrom died just before Thanksgiving this year when he was struck by a vehicle while making his way home to Rock Creek Farm in Deadwood, Oregon.
News of Sundstrom’s death spread quickly among his colleagues and friends, generating more than 50,000 Facebook responses from people near his home in Oregon all the way to the Maasailand of Kenya, where he spent several years studying the community-based conservation practices of the Maasai people, “whom he loved,” said his father, Johnny Sundstrom.
Members of the Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition will gather in Oregon for their annual policy meeting this week, where there are plans to share remembrances and continue Shiloh’s work in rural conservation and development.
I, too, learned of Shiloh’s death on Facebook. I first met Shiloh at the 2009 policy meeting of the Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition (RVCC), a network of organizations working on conservation-based community and economic challenges facing the rural West.
In 2009, Shiloh was a young rancher in cowboy boots and a hat, articulate and passionate about the future of rural communities, with a personality that filled up the room. Some of that personality is captured in the Rural Assembly’s Rural Broadband Policy Group collection of Broadband Tales .
“He never met anyone he couldn’t like,” confirms his father.
“Shiloh was a bridge,” said Maia Enzer, who worked with Shiloh when she was director of RVCC. “I saw him talk with environmentalists, agency administrators, and congressional staff and he was always himself—warm, approachable, honest, knowledgeable, and passionate about solutions.”
Maia was one of several people who responded to my request to send reflections and remembrances of Shiloh.
Shiloh was part of “a new generation of conservation leaders who are grounded in place—in the rural places they were born and raised—and fully see that the future relies on integrated solutions,” Enzer said.
Shiloh wore many hats. He was a rancher and cattle manager, a conservationist and program director at the Siuslaw Institute in the Siuslaw National Forest, a Ph.D. candidate in geography at Oregon State University, and a vocal advocate for more sustainable policies and practices for working landscapes in the West.
“He was able to navigate comfortably between the halls of academia, theorizing about the political ecology of public lands ranching in the West, and the day-to-day realities and constraints of life on the farm,” wrote Hannah Gosnell, associate professor and Shiloh’s adviser at OSU. “He was well on his way to becoming an important leader, like his father, in thinking about alternative, more resilient futures for our working landscapes.”
Hannah also worked with Shiloh on the Ranching/Working Lands Working Group for RVCC. “He was certainly a force in the circles in which he worked and played and I, like so many others, am just devastated that he is no more,” she wrote.
Another RVCC colleague and friend, Emily Jane Davis, remembers working with Shiloh on projects that took them across Oregon’s rural forest communities.
“Sometimes research in rural places is a brief and unsatisfying journey—a few days to peer in and leave,” she wrote. “Working and being with Shiloh in Oregon was not this way. It was full immersion.”
Having grown up on a farm in Deadwood, Shiloh knew a lot about the area, “telling the lengthy stories for which he was known about anything from horse logging in the Coast Range, to water conflict in the Klamath Basin, to his annual visits to the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming,” Emily Jane said. “In knowing Shiloh, I value the countless gifts of sensitivity, creativity, and rural practicality that he unselfishly lent to our work and to my life.”
Shiloh bridged his passion for the working landscapes of the West with the community-based conservation of the Maasai tribe in Kenya. “His research and dissertation focused on… their heroic struggles to maintain traditional culture and lifeways while adapting to modern pressures and opportunities,” said his father.
“He fell in love with the land and people there,” wrote Hannah, Shiloh’s OSU adviser. “He was an invaluable bridge between two worlds… interested in the challenge of conserving wildlife while maintaining traditional pastoral life ways – a challenge we have here in the West, too.”
Colleagues and friends also noted Shiloh’s generosity and creativity.
“He had a tender heart,” said friend and farmer Nikiko Masumoto. “My last memory of him is of saying goodbye at a conference and him tipping his hat.”
Shiloh’s father, Johnny, said Shiloh’s life inspired others to work together to build stronger rural communities.
“I will not stop working to fulfill [Shiloh’s] dreams of a better world for people and nature, and for the balance between protection and productivity that is necessary for all.”