November 17, 2023 |Lance Gloss

Cultivating a Brighter Future for Rural America

More than 30 leaders from rural communities gathered in North Central Pennsylvania for three days of peer-to-peer learning in October 2023. The workshop, co-hosted by The Conservation Fund and the PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship, brought community leaders, public land managers and rural advocates together to exchange best practices for building prosperity through nature-based economic development. This gathering was a watershed moment for a new platform for Activating the Natural Resource Economy (ANRE) dedicated to advancing economic development and natural resource conservation, made possible with generous funding from the Richard King Mellon Foundation.

Teams from New Hampshire, West Virginia, Georgia, Alabama and Maine joined community leaders in the Pennsylvania Wilds and The Conservation Fund in a major step for the emerging platform. An inspiring and informative series of panels, discussions, presentations and tours exposed participants to strategies in downtown revitalization, outdoor recreation and collaboration across conservation-aligned sectors. The group forms the core of a growing partnership driving investments in rural regions across the nation.

The group explores uptown Kane, foregrounded by Kate Kennedy, Executive Director of the Kane Area Economic Development Center, and Gabriel Perkins, Executive Director of Inland Woods + Trails in Maine. Photo by Nikki Witt.

Josh Nease, Executive Director of the Mon Forest Towns Partnership in West Virginia, captured the sense of momentum that pervaded the workshop. “There are good things happening in rural America and these are the people making it happen,” said Nease. “Our diverse regions face similar challenges and this workshop left us all better positioned to address them.”

These challenges include structural shifts in community composition, with remote work and a boom in outdoor recreation bringing new vigor and complexities to rural places. Meanwhile, critical sectors like forest products and agriculture are charting a path through rapid technological changes and evolving constraints on the workforce. Presenters and panelists discussed how housing markets, public health and job training are changing in real-time as conditions evolve, and how they can collaborate to resolve challenges faced by multiple sectors.

"The power of collaboration and partnership is often overlooked in the calculations towards building vibrant communities, but the exchange between communities during our visit to the PA Wilds demonstrated otherwise. Each of the efforts we toured in the PA Wilds — from the locally-sourced makers and artisan-based gift shop to a downtown revitalization building project focused on energy efficiency — are on their own great successes. However, taken together and with all of the other partnership efforts in the region mutually reinforcing the vision for a natural resource-focused economy, that is transformative."

- Katie Allen, Director of Landscape Conservation, Appalachian Trail Conservancy

Critical to the success of the gathering was the PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship, a long-standing partner to The Conservation Fund and to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) that is also supported by the Richard King Mellon Foundation. When the DCNR launched its landscape-scale Pennsylvania Wilds Initiative in 2003, it sparked a concerted effort to unify conservation and economic development efforts to support nature tourism. After a decade of involvement in this effort, Ta Enos took the leap of founding the PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship, which has grown to lead on both entrepreneurship and conservation in the region.

Ta Enos, Founder and CEO of the PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship, responds to a presentation on housing and tourism in Northern New Hampshire. Photo by Nikki Witt.

This logic of marrying conservation and economic development is at work in each of the regions that attended the workshop, and lies at the heart of the ANRE platform. As Abbi Peters, COO of the PA Wilds Center, put it, The Conservation Fund and the PA Wilds Center share in their focus on “bringing together and strengthening the same components that are necessary to build locally rooted wealth in a sustainable way.” These components are diverse, she said, and include “local people and stakeholders, stewardship values related to each community’s unique natural and cultural assets, a recognizable place-based brand that can be leveraged by stakeholders, and authentic storytelling.”

Abbi Peters, COO of the PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship, chats with Charles McMillan, Board Member at Okefenokee Swamp Park, in the recently renovated PA Wilds Media Lab. Photo by Nikki Witt.

This role of the PA Wilds Center in decades-long regional transformation inspired other leaders seeking to replicate this success at home. Kim Bednarek, Executive Director of the Okefenokee Swamp Park (OSP) non-profit moving the needle on eco-tourism in and around the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, had this to say: “Experiencing all that The PA Wilds Center is today, and how their beginning twenty years ago was an act of courage, will, and authentic community visioning, was a tangible testimonial to what is possible when we build deep connections with a clear intention to drive transformative change.”

The composition of each regional team reflects the diversity of leaders engaged in this complex work. Bednarek’s team from southeast Georgia included National Wildlife Refuge Manager Michael Lusk and lifelong conservationist Charles McMillan, now a board member of OSP. But it also included Reverend Antwon Nixon, a local pastor, community leader, and founder of nonprofit Sowing Seeds Outside the Walls, as well as Congressman Steven Sainz, Representative for the 180th House District of Georgia and a growing voice for economic development in rural Georgia.

Antwon Nixon, Founder of Sowing Seeds Outside the Walls (center), explores the grounds at the Elk Country Visitor Center with his fellow attendees. Photo by Nikki Witt.

The ANRE platform is designed to bring together such diverse interests, and to highlight how conservation and economic development can converge on increasing and retaining the value generated by conserved lands. Through catalytic funding and locally adaptable tools, the platform aims to energize the field of rural development and align it with conservation objectives. The peer workshop learning in the PA Wilds was the first such summit for the ANRE platform, with further programming expected in 2024.

Peer learning continues at the Elk Country Visitor Center, as the group learns about the Center’s operations from J. D. Walker, President of the Keystone Elk Country Alliance. Photo by Nikki Witt.

The ANRE platform has also allowed The Conservation Fund to support transformative projects in each of the regions represented at the peer learning workshop with support from the Richard King Mellon Foundation. For example, the Fund is supporting the emergent Okefenokee Partnership to maximize the benefit of the swamp’s anticipated designation as a World Heritage Site under UNESCO. In Northern New Hampshire, the Fund has supported innovations in employer-assisted housing, a project highlighted at the workshop by Harrison Kanzler, the CEO of Affordable Housing, Education and Development, Inc. Likewise, ANRE has supported the Mon Forest Towns Partnership in accelerating outdoor recreation economy in and around the Monongahela National Forest, including through a series of new trailheads being developed in towns throughout the region.

In uptown Kane, Executive Director of Affordable Housing, Education and Development, Inc. Harrison Kanzler discusses building features with Representative Steven Sainz of Georgia. Photo by Nikki Witt.

As ANRE gains momentum, the community of rural leaders engaged in the platform is expected to grow. So, too, will the impact of the regional partnerships represented at the workshop. We’d love you to join us in our work to advance conservation-based rural development. Get in touch to find out how you can get involved or support our work today!

Written by

Lance Gloss

Lance Gloss joined The Conservation Fund in 2023 as Program Manager for Activating the Natural Resource Economy. In this capacity, he supports rural development hubs in New Hampshire, West Virginia and southern Georgia, where the Fund is laying the foundation for a national platform for rural investment. Prior to joining the Fund, Lance served as Senior Planner for the City of Grand Junction, Colorado. He has also contributed to conservation programs across the Mountain West and to a range of economic development efforts in the Carolinas. He holds a B.A. from Brown University and a Master of City and Regional Planning from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. An amateur botanist and linguist, he enjoys traveling across the varied cultural and natural landscapes of the United States and beyond.