Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Time for a Wildlands Conservation Corps

Last summer the West was on fire, as it has been before. Wildlands, resort areas, national parks, and rural towns burned in 11 states, from Alaska to Nevada, California to Wyoming. The total costs were well over $1 billion. Where I live, in Sun Valley, Idaho, the Beaver Creek fire burned roughly 111,000 acres next to us in 16 days, costing $11.6 million. Fire crews called it a “snow fire,” one that goes out only when the first snows fall. What will happen this summer with even more drought in the region?

Residential settlement has occurred across the West since it was “opened.” But it is only in the past few decades that homeowners have created an urban-wildland interface, building right up to the edge of, and even within, forest territories. Whether this is sensible development or not, it exists. Homeowners  increasingly understand how to fireproof their property: Clear away brush and trees near structures, use metal or asphalt roofing and other fire-resistant materials in construction, move stacked wood and other flammables away from homes and outbuildings, maintain two escape routes.

Human settlement in the West has failed to buffer itself beyond private property - to protect at the level of town, subdivision, resort
area, and public camp grounds. There are few places one can go without seeing clustered stands of dead odgepole pine or white bark pine skeletons against the skyline, hovering near emerging stands of new growth or heaped in piles near trails and homes. Fire fuels are abundant, blighting a forest’s esthetic, inviting hotter, bigger, more out-of-control fires, and requiring more labor and expense to maintain public lands. The ever-present deadfall reflects a century of fire suppression, ongoing global warming, and the salutary environment these create for a host of tree killing insects, such as the well-known pine bark beetle.

It seems a good time to implement a modern version of Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps: the Wildlands Conservation Corps (WLCC). The WLCC would be a federal program, run by participating states, that offers people opportunities to help protect natural resources, human life, and structures at the urban-wildland interface. Crews would be trained to systematically clear deadfall bordering human settlement with high fire risk in an environmentally aware manner. The result would be a 500-1,000 foot wide border of safer land just outside human communities at their junction with wildlands. This would enable fire crews to move more safely and easily to bulldoze a fire break, lay hose, and conduct backburns, if needed. It would reduce the fire containment period. It would help save millions in fire-fighting costs, reduce local economic disruption, reduce human anxiety, and improve the blighted look of some areas.

A job with the WLCC would pay a decent wage for a two-year commitment, including two weeks of training. It would include food, clothing and housing allowances. It would provide work for people at a time of high unemployment, enable their acquisition of new skills, and build greater first-hand awareness of the natural resources we are so lucky to have in America. Like the Peace Corps or Americorps, the program could yield a unique life experience for participants. 
The up-to-date conservation ethic is to let nature follow her cycles of birth, aging, death, and rebirth - including fire. NO intervention unless absolutely necessary for human health and safety. We are reversing Smoky the Bear's policy which put nature out of her usual balance. Now, we can assist the return of healthy forests by permitted fire and fire containment, environmentally-
sound removal of deadfall at the urban-rural interface, constraints on urban-wildland development, and moe public education about the forest environment. Helping to restore healthy forests would be the purpose of the WLCC.

Those of us living
in or near wildlands are lucky to observe Nature’s cycles, including fire; it is beautiful, cleansing, and necessary. With the help of hard-working and increasingly knowledgeable fire crews, Western wildlands are returning to the once-healthy “fire mosaic” of lands in which burned and non-burned areas are intermixed. Low delicate greens peek up through blackened ground. Wildflowers pop - colorfully quilting the land. Vistas are broad and sun-filled. Tiny trees cluster in small stands that will become giant green stalwarts.   This forest cycle (which holds for grasslands and savanna as well) has been massively orchestrated and balanced by nature for eons.

Humans have intervened far too much in nature, trying to control it for our purposes. The work of a WLCC respectful of fire but offering a practical assist to containment, just might help her back into balance – and humans back into balance with her as well.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Local Dollars, Local Sense

“America’s investment system is broken,” according to Michael Shuman, a community economist. “Half the jobs and the output in the U.S. economy derive from local business but almost all our investment dollars go into big corporations on Wall Street,” far from home. Shuman advocates balancing the scale between Main Street and Wall Street through new mechanisms developed for local investment which his research shows can yield “a five percent living rate of return,” among other community benefits. 

Shuman is the author of several books, including his most recent, Local Dollars, Local Sense. He proposes that cities and towns can finance their economic dreams by investing in quality of place. Specifically, we must begin to shift our investment dollars from Wall Street to Main Street, from corporations over which we have no control to local community enterprise where we can see a business up close and personal, track its progress in real time, and benefit from locally recirculated dollars. Investing in corporations may have been wise decades ago when corporations were often local. Now, Shuman emphasizes, corporations are global, stock markets are technologically driven “casinos of high risk,” and financial markets serve the corporate bottom-line, rather than the health and wealth of community economies.  

Shuman acknowledges that implementing local investment will require a paradigm shift for most investors. Current government and financing policies tout Wall Street as the single most valuable investment platform and communities have traditionally focused on attracting large business operations. Yet, says Shuman, data for Main Street investments show both lower risk and a more consistent and higher rate of return. “Small businesses, including homegrown businesses,” he reports, “have maintained their share of jobs in the economy since 1990 while nonlocal businesses have failed to increase their presence or profit in that same economy.” In other words, in a financial and public policy system that favors Wall Street, Main Street has held its own unassisted. Overall, sole proprietorships are three times more profitable than C-corporations; on regional measures, a high density of locally-owned firms is positively associated with per capita income growth.
Acknowledging that investing in Main Street is in its “infancy,” Shuman describes “cutting-edge capital tools” that have been successful in various U.S. locales.  Developed by non-profits, local and state governments, and private enterprise, these mechanisms have significantly assisted community economic development. They include creating revolving loan funds for local businesses, “buy local” campaigns, forming producer and consumer cooperatives with lending capacity, developing local business portfolios for investment, and bank issuance of specialty Certificates of Deposit (CDs) to benefit the business community.  
Main Street investment has multiple attractions, says Shuman. Investors can evaluate and promote products and services in their portfolio; they often know business owners and directors - or can get to know them - to provide feedback; they can see if their investments are environmentally and socially sound; and they can ensure that local businesses spend locally in a positive feedback loop for the entire community.  Local businesses are also flexible, able to shift with their market. In many cases, just-in-time delivery, lower shipping costs, and convenient storage facilities bring added advantage.
“The U.S. has $30 trillion held in various forms of savings, with less than 1% of those savings held at the local level,” asserts Shuman. If a larger percentage of that very large pot were dedicated to Main Street, even a small town of 5,000 could find itself possessing several million dollars for starting or expanding local businesses.

Fortunately, Shuman points out, public policy regarding investment is beginning to look toward Main Street.  In the past, an investor had to be accredited to formally invest in a business, a process open to people with a wealth base of $1 million in assets (excluding their home) and requiring extensive legal activity by the business seeking investment.  Accredited investors are roughly 2% of the economy. With the recently-passed federal JOBS Act, the other 98% of Americans who are unaccredited investors are being invited to the table.  The best-known result so far are crowdfunding websites such as Indiegogo and Kickstarter which allow a business to solicit dollars from the general public. 

Shuman confesses that he was once drawn to the tried-and-true “Wall Street is where it’s at” mantra.  Then, a victim of Wall Street’s collapse, the light bulb sparked and he started afresh.  Now he is dedicated to encouraging individual investment in local businesses to help them start, grow, diversify, and thrive. The best method to build prosperity, he believes, is to invest our extra dollars in “local businesses we know and trust, so that our families, our neighbors, and our communities become our true sources of wealth.”