Rural communities are frontline stewards of America’s most treasured natural systems — these communities sustain nature, and nature sustains them. The Conservation Fund’s Activating the Natural Resource Economy platform works to preserve and expand this mutually beneficial relationship.  We partner with rural communities on the frontline in decisions on the future of land, water and wildlife across the nation to align protecting nature with economic development and opportunity.


To drive rural development forward, we bring technical assistance and flexible funding to partnerships in the same rural places where we work to conserve natural assets. We leverage today’s record levels of federal funding for rural development as well as philanthropy to support projects that meet both conservation and economic development goals. Our work helps strengthen job-creating areas that rely on and sustain nature, like recreation, forestry, agriculture and clean energy, and invests in people and quality of life through affordable housing, childcare and downtown revitalization.



In the past decade, rural America has witnessed significant demographic and economic shifts, prompting communities to grapple with difficult decisions about their future. How rural areas adapt over the next decade hinges on their ability to innovate, the decisions of local leaders, and the nation’s willingness to support strategic rural development.


  • 97% of America’s land mass is classified as rural and is home to 66.3 million residents¹
  • Only 7% of philanthropic dollars are invested in rural America. ²
  • 87% of the food and beverage consumed by Americans is produced on farms located in rural areas. ³
  • In 2022, the outdoor recreation economy accounted for 4.3 million jobs and generated $563.7 billion in GDP. ⁴
  • Over the past decade, rural America saw their working-age population decline by 4.9%. ⁵


Far from being incompatible, economic development and conservation can — and should — proceed hand-in-hand. By focusing on sectors that leverage natural assets to drive growth in the broader economy, communities can become more prosperous and healthier without compromising the needs of nature. A strong natural resource economy is also a diverse economy, building across multiple sectors for resilience.



The Activating the Natural Resource Economy platform is designed to empower rural regions to achieve long-term, deep-rooted prosperity through economic pathways that replenish, rather than deplete, natural assets. We support a diversified economic strategy for long-term stability and wealth-building in rural communities, with a focus on economic sectors that support and are supported by nature.


ANRE has supported communities in exploring the value of ecotourism and outdoor recreation, and how to maximize value capture in their communities. Here, Program Manager Lance Gloss presents an Economic Impact Assessment of World Heritage designation for the Okefenokee Swamp to a public forum in Charlton County, GA.


We do this through a combination of technical assistance, a national peer learning network, locally-adaptable tools and strategic early-stage funding for transformative projects. Once projects in our network are prepared for full funding, we support our community partners in accessing the right resources from state, federal and private funding sources. This approach also serves funders looking for impactful ways to address both conservation and rural development.


For more information, please email Lance Gloss, Program Manager at Activating the Natural Resource Economy.



We work with local partners across our six Focus Regions where The Conservation Fund is also making an ongoing impact on land conservation:


  • The Black Belt of Alabama
  • The Okefenokee Region of Southeast Georgia
  • Northern New Hampshire (Coos County)
  • The Monongahela Forest Towns of West Virginia
  • Western Maine (Oxford County)
  • The Columbia River Gorge of Washington


The platform continues to grow, with new Focus Regions added each year.



This dashboard, hosted on Tableau, presents key rural development metrics focused on health, wealth and community capacity. It can be used to help identify areas for communities to focus their development efforts.



Economic development with a focus on conservation and nature-based economies produces real impact on the broader economy of a region. These forces are interdependent and mutually reinforcing.  Executed wisely, a conserved land-base kicks off a flywheel of opportunity in natural resource sectors, setting the stage for investment in small business, housing and infrastructure.




¹ “What is Rural America?”, US Census Bureau (2017) 
² Foundation Grants to Rural Areas From 2005 to 2010: Trends and Patterns, USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) (2015) 
³ Land O’ Lakes, Rooted In Tomorrow 
⁴ “Outdoor Recreation Satellite Account, U.S. and States, 2022”, Bureau of Economic Analysis (2023) 
⁵ Share of working-age population in nonmetro areas declined from 2010 to 2020, USDA Economic Research Service (ERS)