By Amy Grotta, OSU Forestry & Natural Resources Extension – Columbia, Washington & Yamhill Counties

Source: Vernonia School District

Typically, northwest Oregon forests are considered in terms of their high productivity, their ecological characteristics, or their contribution to the state’s economy. But how do our forests shape the rural communities they surround? And how do these communities influence the forests?

These questions have been on my mind over the past couple years, as I’ve been working with community members in Vernonia on a study of “community vitality”*. Ninety-five percent of the land surrounding Vernonia is forest, and most is privately owned. So, it would seem natural that forests and forestry are important to the local economy and culture. We wanted to dig deeper into these assumptions, so we examined existing data plus information from surveys that we conducted last summer.

Regarding forestry’s contribution to the local economy, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 5% of Vernonia’s workers are directly employed in “Farming, Fishing & Forestry.” While higher than the state average (2%), it reflects a decline from the 1980’s; and certainly from the 1950’s, when the Oregon-American Mill was still operating in town. Nowadays, many of Vernonia’s workers commute to Washington County.

Learning about log markets on family forest land near Vernonia
Learning about log markets on family forest land near Vernonia

On the other hand, 27% of Vernonia area residents obtain at least some of their household income from natural resources-related activities or services, according to our survey. If only a small fraction of people are directly employed in these sectors, what makes up the difference? I have a few hypotheses:

  • Family forest owners – there are roughly 200 of them in the zip code – obtain income from their own land, selling timber or firewood.
  • Individuals’ primary employment is not in forestry, but they earn some money on the side – helping a relative during busy times, for example.
  • Residents work in another natural resources-related sector besides “Farming, Fishing & Forestry”, such as parks & recreation or watershed restoration.

The bottom line, as I see it, is that forests and natural resources are important to Vernonia’s economic well-being, despite the transformation from a community wholly dependent on a mill.

How about residents’ connection to the forested landscape (beyond income)? Vernonia School District has made raising “natural resources consciousness” a schoolwide priority, so we wanted to explore how that goal has played out. But quantifying this awareness is not easy.

Photo credit: Scott Laird
Photo credit: Scott Laird

We looked at the number of youth with hunting or fishing licenses (in Vernonia, roughly 15% of all local 5- to 18-year-olds); because research shows that early-life outdoor experiences contribute to environmental awareness. And, about 40% of Vernonia’s high school students said they would possibly pursue a career or education related to natural resources. Will there be local jobs for these youth in the future?

What about the condition of the natural resources themselves? That turns out to be a tricky question too. Much of the information regarding forest, stream, and wildlife conditions are only readily available at a larger scale – a county or ecoregion, for instance. But, we are using information about forest cover and stream temperatures as indicators of overall watershed health. And, there are many interactions among all of these factors. For example, Vernonia students are monitoring stream temperatures as part of their curriculum, thereby contributing to their “natural resources consciousness”, creating local data, and providing them with career skills.

These are things that we learned through the course of the Vital Vernonia Indicator Project. We developed a set of indicators – measureable conditions – that, taken together, create a snapshot of vitality of this rural community. We have forty or so indicators across a spectrum of themes: livability and community engagement, youth education, economy, health and well-being, and – of course, environment and natural resources. We can come back to these indicators in the future and explore changes over time.

Wondering how your community measures up? The Rural Communities Explorer website is a useful tool to explore demographic, economic, and social data. We used the Rural Communities Explorer extensively for the Vital Vernonia Indicator Project. You may find things that confirm or challenge your assumptions about the place you call home.

*According to the Oregon State University Rural Studies Program, “community vitality” is the ability of a community to sustain itself into the future as well as provide opportunities for its residents to pursue their own life goals and the ability of residents to experience positive life outcomes. A vital community has community capacity (the ability to plan, make decisions, and act together), and realizes positive social, economic, and environmental outcomes.

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3 thoughts on “How communities and natural resources interact – an example from Vernonia, Oregon

  1. Based on my work in other parts of the country, it may be worth looking at other Census data. The Census of Agriculture in a time series shows a strong trend over many decades for rural areas in states with dominantly urban populations for family farms to be operated by farmers with primary family income from another source outside of agriculture.

    I’ve coincidentally just been looking at data on NIPF ownership patterns in Oregon, and by acreage, it is highly centralized in larger tracts. A few people own large acreages; most owners own smaller tracts.

    The implication I get is that family forests above a certain size (a few hundred acres in this part of the world – I suspect there is data or it would be fairly easy to use secondary sources to arrive at a number) can generate income sufficient to support a family, but that the vast majority of family forest owners do not own sufficient forest land to do so. That in turn implies a further “category” to consider beyond the three bulleted ones – one common in family agriculture – the job “in town” unrelated to forestry. Confirming evidence lies in the reasons given among family forest owners for owning the land, which tend not to focus on income among smaller holdings.

  2. I had to visit the Rural Communities Explorer website and I’m only finding data aggregated at County level. Is this a work-in-progress, hence the pilot indicator venues listed? Is there a plan to use indicators developed in these (and other) studies to develop a more detailed data presentation?

    Oregon’s process of developing indicators and benchmarking is landmark work – is this tied in?

  3. Paul, thank you for your comments. You are right on target with your conclusion that most family forest owners do not make a living off their land. That is the point that I was getting at in the post (first bullet). Even though most of the family forest owners are not directly employed in the forest sector (i.e., they have other jobs), many are still obtaining some income from their land and while it may be a minor part of the overall family income, when considered at the scale of a community it is significant, and not reflected in employment statistics.

    Regarding Rural Communities Explorer, some of the data are only available at the county level, and other data (like from the U.S. Census) at the level of the census tract or municipality. It depends on the data source. The Census of Agriculture, for example, is only aggregated at the county level. The FAQ’s in the Communities Reporter Tool on RCE is useful for understanding the data sources and how to interpret them. Finally, make sure when selecting your community you are looking at “All Indicators” not “TOP” indicators which are only county-level.

    When selecting indicators for the Vital Vernonia Indicator Project, our committee decided to reject any indicators that were only available at the county level. We agreed that due to Vernonia’s geography and size relative to other populated areas of Columbia County, it would not be appropriate to use county level indicators to explain conditions in Vernonia.

    For more on how RCE is being used explore trends in Oregon you might enjoy Lena Etuk’s Social Demography blog:

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