A New Social Contract

When Nils Christoffersen accepted a new job at fledgling nonprofit Wallowa Resources in Enterprise in Oregon’s remote northeastern corner in the summer of 1999, founding director Diane Daggett assigned him a single task: listen.

During his first months, she simply wanted him to go into the community, to better understand local residents and their culture and to learn their fears and dreams. The approach reinforced the most important lesson Christoffersen had learned from years of rural economic development work in southern Africa: You may think you’re well-trained and educated, but people on the ground know more about their place, culture and landscape than you do.

Enterprise, a cattle and farming town set amid prime logging country, was a long shot to remake itself as a hotbed of sustainable economic development. The era of big timber was on its last gasps. All three county sawmills were closed. The days of clear-cutting massive, old trees were long past. One-in-five locals had lost their jobs, and longtime residents were moving away.

After leaving Africa, Christoffersen had been on the hunt for a rural U.S. community that was using sustainability and a commitment to land stewardship to remake itself and assert leadership in ways that he had seen overseas. That’s when he learned about then-Wallowa County Commissioner Ben Boswell’s unusual step of co-founding Wallowa Resources as a nongovernmental economic innovation and experimentation engine. From the ashes of the big timber era, Boswell and his peers envisioned a new restoration-based economy.

Helming a nonprofit situated squarely in the radical-middle could sometimes make Christoffersen the enemy of the two extremes. But Wallowa Resources had a determined board of directors, support from the Wallowa County commission, funding from the USDA’s Rural Development program and an initial strategic plan for the organization. Most important, there was a core group of local stakeholders who believed they could reinvent themselves.  

Wallowa Resources launched a large sustainable ecosystem management program, including an effort to manage weeds on 1 million acres of private and public canyonlands that generated $480,000 in payroll and local contracts. A few years later, Wallowa Resources brokered the Arroz Stewardship Contract, a plan for the management of U.S. Forest Service land with buy-in from 20 organizations, resulting in the county’s largest successful commercial timber sale in years. More than a dozen local investors joined Wallowa Resources in their new for-profit subsidiary, Community Smallwood Solutions, to create a small-diameter log processing business.

By 2009, two years after Christoffersen had assumed the executive director role, Wallowa Resources had recruited Integrated Biomass Resources to co-locate with Community Smallwood Solutions to produce chips, hog fuel and pest-free certified firewood. In 2012, Integrated Biomass Resources took over Community Smallwood Solutions and established a 70-acre campus on the site of what was once the county’s largest mill. That same year at the request of Baker, Union and Wallowa counties, Wallowa Resources organized a forest collaborative to advance forest and community resilience across northeast Oregon; the effort serves as a model for federal forest management in Oregon and across the country. Wallowa Resources produced a draft watershed restoration plan for 100,000-acre Lower Joseph Creek in 2014.

Perhaps Wallowa Resources’ greatest accomplishment is its role in helping to evolve the region’s culture toward a new, can-do economy based on sustainability principles. Local cattle ranches have evolved toward grass-fed beef and other niche markets, while large river restoration projects there are seen as national models. Wallowa County even gave the former hospital to Wallowa Resources to become a hub for 13 mission-driven organizations and agencies. Afterschool and summer programs, high school internships, and hands-on work experiences spurred by Wallowa Resources reach nearly half of Wallowa County’s students, giving practical hope to a new generation.

Christoffersen believes the community-benefit approach that worked for Wallowa County can work for other rural regions.

At the heart of Wallowa Resources’ work is organizing: identifying leaders, listening to them and getting out of the way to let leaders lead. Christoffersen seeks authentic connections with people that sustain the natural resource base of the economy in ways that align with the law, local culture, markets, broader public values and ecosystem management best practices.

Seventeen years on, Christoffersen is still listening.

What he hears often: The legacy of past management activity — heavy logging, overgrazing and mismanagement of water, combined with the current drought cycle and declines in federal funding — begs a new social contract between rural communities and urban and suburban populations. We are all, as they say, in it together. But building a complicated mosaic of trust, innovative finance and long-term investments balanced with the practical needs of culture, food, water, environment and jobs will require innovation, commitment and daring.

In towns such as Enterprise, revival can feel tenuous when rural neighbors still struggle. Putting communities back together, and being given the social license to do it, remains the work of one organizer, one weaver, one catalyst and one sustaining organization at a time.