Strings strung just right

Posted by Renee Magyar on May 10, 2011

Maia Enzer reflects on her tenth year of bringing rural leaders to Washington DC.

Maia Enzer reflects on her tenth year of bringing rural leaders to Washington DC.

For a brief (and unsuccessful) moment in Junior High School, I tried to learn how to play the guitar. Through this experience I learned a few lessons about string instruments: If I strung the strings too tight, they would pop off and no music could be played. If I made them too loose, I suffered the same result. But when I managed to string them with just the right amount of tension, harmonious sounds emerged and I forgot that I was tone deaf, risked raising my voice in song and, for an instant, felt like all was okay in my world.

Today, for the tenth year in a row, I am in Washington D.C. for the annual outreach week of the Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition (RVCC). Sustainable Northwest created the RVCC more than a decade ago with the intention of supporting our rural partners in speaking for themselves and advancing conservation priorities that reflected the landscapes surrounding their communities.

The RVCC is compromised of community leaders from all over the western United States. They come from places like the tiny mountain town of Hayfork, California, where the federal forests were shut down over concerns for the viability of the Spotted Owl population; or towns like Enterprise, Oregon, located in the state's majestic northeastern corner, where the Wallowa Mountains have suffered from increased wildfire; and communities such as Salmon, Idaho, where local livelihoods dependent on the confluence of ranching, logging, and recreation are threatened by subdivisions and forest health problems. Communities such as these are also defined by large swaths of federally owned land and must reconcile the interdependence of their local economies and the stewardship needs of these landscapes.

The perspective of leaders from communities like Hayfork, Enterprise, and Salmon are powerful in their own right; but without a network of coordinated voices speaking out about their shared environmental, social, and economic struggles, they do not have enough resonance to be heard above the traditional interest groups that dominate natural resource policy.

Sitting on the crowded plane as we traveled across the country, I heard the soft but edgy voice of Lynn Jungwirth from Hayfork explain why her community can no longer be  sacrificed to the unintended consequences of rigid regulation that hasn't helped restore her forests or the economy of her community; or the brave and perky voice of Kristin Troy from Salmon, Idaho, explaining that they need an intact working landscape that crosses all ownerships to protect the last ranches and salmon populations that flow through her community; and I hear the gravelly voice of John Squires from southwest Washington, concerned about his livelihood working in the woods and the opportunities that his children may or may not have if we don't start taking better care of the land.

These voices, and others like them, form a chorus of hope and solutions to the seemingly intractable environmental challenges facing our nation. These are people that, despite the odds and set-backs, are motivated by a deep desire to see their landscapes healthy and productive. These are the pioneers of conservation innovation that speak candidly about what it really takes to care for the land and communities. Their connection to tangible conservation achievement is exactly what policies in Washington, D.C. should be grounded on.

I still can't play the guitar, and I most certainly have never conquered my inability to sing in tune. But I have learned that when you have the right kind of tension built on solutions, you can solve then most wicked of problems. The voices of the rural conservation practitioners who I have the privilege to work with are strung just right, and when they band together, as we will during this annual trip to the nation's Capitol, they will strike a beautiful chord that I hope will move the souls of those whose job it is to listen and decide. I know that when I listen to my rural partners speak about the land and their community, I get the feeling that all is going to be well, the world can be a better place, and that it does make a difference if each of us commits to joining together to create a chord of harmony that reflects the innovation and dedication of our shared vision for a healthy environment and communities.

Maia Enzer is the former Director of the Policy Program and a founding member of RVCC.