Can Forests Heal the Rural-Urban Divide?

Guest Post By Brianna Cunliffe

There are growing gaps between rural and urban Americans in terms of economic opportunity, access to resources, and political orientation. This is often referred to as a “rural-urban divide”. Americans who rely on the land to make their living have an enormous stake in keeping it healthy for generations. But conversations about conservation and the environment often leave out rural communities. This is one way in which we see the serious problem of the rural-urban divide. In this rapidly-changing world, people from different communities face starkly different challenges. There’s a lack of empathy and dialogue between urban and rural Americans. We can’t pursue solutions together unless we understand one another’s perspectives.

Forests are a bridge between what can seem like two different worlds. A new forest economy can arise based not on extraction, but on protection and innovation. Conservation gives rural communities the opportunity to shape their own destinies and help the planet at the same time.

Shifting Economies in the Rural-Urban Divide

rural rolling hills and farmland
People who work in trades, factories, and on the land see a widening gap between themselves and city-dwelling “elites” – those who work at desks, often with advanced degrees. The farmers, ranchers, and blue-collar workers who have called rural areas home for generations face unprecedented challenges. Traditional economic structures are shifting. Consolidation threatens small family farms. Outsourcing threatens to send towns’ biggest employers overseas. Technology displaces human workers and makes good-paying jobs even harder to find. Meanwhile, popular culture tends to ridicule rather than sympathize with rural challenges, like lack of access to healthcare and education. People are left to face a changing and precarious future alone. All of these things make it hard for rural and urban folks to align on the direction our nation is heading.

Politics in the Rural-Urban Divide

Rural Americans see resources going to big cities while rural communities struggle to make ends meet. Many urban people discount rural people as uneducated and stuck in the past. Politicians exploit these resentments and rifts for their own benefit, worsening things further. Often politicians claim to be on the side of the “little guy” to win votes in struggling communities. But once in office, they sell their constituents out. But, some would say, at least they pay attention to the issues that matter to rural voters.

Unfortunately, other politicians totally ignore large swaths of the country to focus on what they frame as “the future.” They claim that the future is all about cities and technology and leave out rural voices. This ignores the suffering of rural communities and deepens resentment. Already for many rural Americans, it’s difficult to believe in a government that has failed so many for so long.

Extraction in the Rural-Urban Divide

From coal mines to lumber mills, the industries which rural communities rely on have one thing in common: they’re extractive. Because of this, companies get away with treating people like they’re expendable. The logging industry is a prime example. Logging is the second most dangerous job in the world. The average age of workers ranges from 50-60, and health coverage and benefits are subpar at best. Folks in timber towns work until their bodies give out and get no loyalty from the industry in return. The livelihoods of whole communities hang in the balance of international market forces.

a factory emits smoke

Rural Americans deserve better. They deserve fair compensation for their hard work. They shouldn’t have to sacrifice their health or the natural beauty around them to make a living. They deserve the chance to shape their own future and that of their children. A new forest economy can offer this and more.

The Future Forest Economy

A better future requires a shift away from extractive economies. This means phasing out industries that rely on resource extraction, like logging. Replacing these industries with sustainable alternatives has positive consequences in many ways. First, communities would no longer have to endure the boom and bust cycle. In a boom and bust cycle, companies arrive, become a large employer, and leave when business becomes cheaper elsewhere. This pattern devastates entire towns, leaving many unable to provide for their families.

Second, the health of communities would improve. Extractive industries generate harmful pollution that affects large areas. Pollution causes enormous negative health impacts often leading to premature death. It’s not only the chronic long-term issues like higher rates of asthma and cancer. Hazardous and poorly-managed industrial sites can cause devastating fires and catastrophic explosions. One just happened at a wood pellet plant in Brunswick, Georgia. Pollution makes rural communities less desirable places to live, work, and visit. This drives property values down and discourages tourism, limiting growth and suppressing opportunity.

The protection of our forests promises multiplying, cascading benefits for everyone involved. Sequestering carbon in standing  forests will ease the devastation of global climate change. Non-extractive alternatives will improve peoples’ lives and incomes. Tourism, recreation, and research will bring much-needed opportunities to rural communities. This is the new forest economy, and it’s the way to a better future.

Opportunities For Bridging The Rural-Urban Divide

Our leaders need to move to enact these win-win solutions on a large scale. There is no time to waste. Biden’s 30-by-30 goal (a commitment to conserve 30% of land area by 2030) is a good start. But industrial forestry and the dirty biomass industry have accrued too much power. Even those who proclaim to be on the side of conservation, like Governor Cooper, are all too often silent. But corporate interests can’t outweigh the needs of struggling rural communities nationwide.

a road cuts through a dark forest

Protecting forests sends a clear message to rural communities that they matter. Stopping exploitative logging and biomass production opens another path forward. It ends the generations of harm and neglect that have entrapped people in vicious cycles. Because of extractive industries, so many hard-working Americans live in poverty and isolation. They are forced to rely on polluting corporations that cut and run with no warning, leaving entire towns stranded. Holding these industries accountable is the first step to breaking the cycle.

Vibrant, thriving forests nurture thriving communities. Government support for a transition away from extractive industries can right generations of wrongs. Conservation can begin to heal the wounds that divide us. The new forest economy is a bridge to a better future. It starts with bold, courageous action to protect the land we rely on and love.

Ready To Do Something? Tell President Biden To Take Action On Our Forests

Brianna Cunliffe grew up reading books tucked in the branches of a Carolina pine a few miles away from the sea. Now a rising senior Government and Environmental Studies major and department fellow at Bowdoin College, she seeks to blend passionate activism on behalf of the natural world with innovative, justice-centering policy solutions. Brianna previously worked with elected officials on Protect America, organizing state and local leaders to take action to fight the climate crisis. She’s thrilled to join Dogwood Alliance as an intern to work on the issues closest to her home and her heart.

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