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Clean energy helps rural communities thrive

Published on September 7, 2012 3:01AM

Last changed on October 5, 2012 9:29AM




For the Capital Press

Wildfires and drought have delivered a one-two punch to many whose efforts put food on our tables. Their situation is unique. Unlike other products, livestock already "on the ground" can't be returned -- they'll need to be fed and cared for, even when it means losing money on each animal.

Here's the hand they've been dealt. Recent wildfires have devastated rangelands -- for Oregon some of the biggest in 150 years have wiped out more than 1 million acres of rangeland. Across the West, over 6 million acres have burned.

This summer's drought -- the worst since the Great Depression -- has reduced yields of hay, corn and soybeans. Nationwide, 59 percent of the nation's pastures and rangeland are rated very poor or poor. Short-term measures such as USDA opening the Conservation Reserve Program to emergency haying and grazing will have lasting effects on the marginal lands that have been out of production in order to preserve and build soils.

The effects of this year's weather will be felt in the food chain, and consumers' pocketbooks. There are serious challenges in managing a shortage of fodder for livestock while continuing to produce affordable meat and dairy products.

News stories about the drought are fraught with quotes from farmers denying this is a pattern or human-caused, calling on divine intervention for assistance, hoping for a genetically modified corn that will thrive in a desert and expressing resignation that there is little they can do to change things.

Take those quotes with a grain of salt and open ears. Those words come from good people in a very difficult situation. In this time of crisis, rural communities are pursuing concrete on-the-ground actions that can alleviate the suffering, stabilize our food system and bring hope to those greatly affected by extreme weather.

There are terrific examples of such neighborly assistance, the Central Oregon Hay Growers Association set up a website for ranchers and farmers to locate hay and pastures. Donated feed is steadily arriving at the ranches at the epicenter of recent fires.

During the Great Depression there wasn't a lot of debate about whether the drought and blowing topsoils were a man-made condition. No one denied there was much misery. The Dust Bowl drought brought financial devastation and relocation for many farm families -- my grandparents among them.

But there was also widespread adoption of practical and profitable solutions developed by ag researchers. Conservation tillage practices continue to allow us to farm intensively without destroying the soil.

We are faced with a similar situation today. Some would like to spend the day arguing whether wildfires and extreme weather events are man-made. But I'd rather stand shoulder-to-shoulder and lend a hand to the farmers, ranchers, foresters and rural communities that are developing a new clean energy economy and continuing to refine management practices to build soils.

Clark Gilman is the Harvesting Clean Energy program manager. Harvesting Clean Energy is a program of Climate Solutions, a nonprofit organization based in Olympia, Wash.

The program's goal is to help accelerate rural economic development in the Northwest through clean energy development.


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