Partners in Rural Vitality

Wallowa landscape
Rural landowners depend on access roads to move livestock and farm equipment. (Photo: Jesse Abrams)

Beautiful landscapes may inspire us, but it takes more than scenery to create community vitality. Wallowa County and rural communities across the country struggle with economic development, a future for their youth and the cultural tensions that arise from changing land ownership. For more than a decade, such issues in Wallowa have been addressed by Wallowa Resources, one of the nation’s leading nonprofit natural resources organizations.

“Wallowa Resources shows us what is possible. There are few places you can go in the country to get this range of innovative thinking about rural communities,” says Oregon State University forestry professor John Bliss.

So it was natural for Bliss and Associate Professor Kate MacTavish in Human Development and Family Sciences to partner with Nils Christoffersen, Wallowa Resources executive director, in the creation of an experiential learning course for OSU graduate students. Since 2005, students have spent 10 September days living with families and meeting with community leaders from Garibaldi on to the coast, to the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Central Oregon, to Wallowa County in the northeast corner of the state.

See the Video

Oregon State University’s “Communities and Natural Resources” class started as an experiment. Now it is a regular opportunity for students to learn about the rich history and issues facing rural Oregon communities. Watch students and listen to OSU forestry professor John Bliss in this video produced by the College of Forestry.

For students, the experience has been unforgettable. Caitlin Bell, who participated in 2008, had this to say on her final exam: “I was faced repeatedly with the formidable and humbling task of dismantling my assumptions and preconceptions and rebuilding knowledge from scratch. I learned, among many things, that rural residents are innovative, entrepreneurial, and warmly hospitable people who value community, simple living, and hard work.” Wallowa Resources reprinted her remarks in a 2009 newsletter.

The Natural Resources and Communities course has spawned student projects that arm local decision-makers with useful information about trends in education, land use, forests and other topics, adds Christoffersen. For example, two students working with MacTavish – Devora Shamah and Brooke Dolenc – surveyed Wallowa County high school students and graduates to find out what drives their aspirations. They discovered that while about a third of high school students wanted to live in Wallowa County as adults, about one quarter of graduates were actually doing so. Dolenc’s and Shamah’s reports are available online in the OSU Scholar’s Archive.

OSU’s relationship with Wallowa County is just one example of the close partnerships between the university and rural communities through Extension and agricultural experiment stations. In addition, the OSU Rural Studies Program has established formal agreements to do research in Wallowa and Tillamook counties and has been active in Lake, Coos and other counties as well.

A signature effort has been the development of “community indicators” of vitality. OSU students and faculty have collaborated with local citizens to identify markers that allow leaders to prioritize goals and evaluate progress in reaching them. Wallowa County was the focus of a recent effort led by Lena Etuk, a social demographer with OSU Extension and the College of Health and Human Sciences. With funding from the Ford Institute for Community Building, she worked with Wallowa Resources and a team of volunteers to outline 26 indicators of vitality in social, economic and environmental health and community capacity.

Reports for Oregon counties, including Tillamook and Wallowa, are available online here.

Related story: The Mythbuster

To support OSU Extension or the Rural Studies Program, contact the OSU Foundation, 800-354-7281.