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