USA – How are communities across the American West changing? Where are the growth opportunities and risks? If youre an entrepreneur or policymaker looking to the future of the region, pioneering Headwaters Economics may be a key ally for you. Here, Keith Hammonds, President of Solutions Journalism Network, catches up with Ray Rasker, Headwaters founder and CEO, to learn why.
Keith Hammonds: Ray, can you first tell us how Headwaters got started?
Ray Rasker: We felt there was room for an independent, nonpartisan organization that would support decision makers with rapid turnaround research on rural communities. Think of the big challenges in the West and beyond wildfires, energy policy, public lands these are complicated issues with a lot of layers. Policymakers and entrepreneurs too often lack accessible data and analysis to help them make sense of the issues and whats coming. So Headwaters has national tools that are easy, free, and tell you all sorts of incredible things, like the economic profile system and the populations at risk tools. Theyre a huge timesaver.
Hammonds: How does this play out in real life?
Rasker: Take wildfires. This is a big, costly issue the U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies spend about $3 billion per year fighting wildland fires in the West and elsewhere as the fire threat spreads. Thats three times the amount from a decade ago. A lot of people know a lot about wildfires but the knowledge is compartmentalized, so we brought together 20 experts dealing with the issue in a closed-door solutions forum in Jackson, Wyoming, with no press. We looked closely at all the data and arrived at 10 creative solutions including one that provides planning support to help communities significantly reduce fire risk. We followed up with a pilot study, and a year later came back to federal policymakers and said, Heres what this looks like on the ground. The planning support idea is now our Community Planning for Wildfire program and being implemented in 17 communities in the West.
Hammonds: Lets talk about the reigning economic narrative of the West that is anchored in the decline of extractive industries and resulting dislocation of jobs. Is this the right narrative?
Rasker: No, its not where the big numbers are. Less than five percent of personal income in the rural West is from mining, oil and gas, and timber. But the perception is that it’s much, much bigger than that, right? So this narrative that the West is resource dependent has hijacked the conversation we should be having, which is: why are some places thriving while others are declining?