The Center for Economic Development has just launched a new data platform aimed to improve the resources available to understand socioeconomic conditions in rural communities in California. This unveiling is the result of a multi-year collaboration between the U.S. Forest Service, the Sustainable Forest Action Coalition, and the Center for Economic Development. The inspiration for the project dates back to the early 2010’s, when the Sustainable Forest Action Coalition—a grassroots, nonpartisan group advocating for policies that balance the economic and environmental resilience of rural communities—organized a series of conversations with the Forest Service about their concerns that voices from small rural towns weren’t being heard in decision-making processes about public lands.
Visionary stakeholders from both organizations agreed that there was a critical need for data that would allow for a better understanding and discussion of the socioeconomic conditions in small forest communities. After the Center for Economic Development hosted a roundtable between the U.S. Forest Service and the Sustainable Forest Action Coalition’s membership on the CSU, Chico campus in 2015, it became clear that forming an innovative partnership between the three organizations was the most efficient way to address this need. The partners recognized the importance of learning from earlier efforts that had fallen short, and agreed that it was necessary for data to be collected at as fine a spatial scale as possible, under a rigorous, standardized methodology, and be comparable across the state.
Across California, the partners collectively identified seventy-three rural areas made up of individual or geographically clustered towns or cities as “focal communities.” Selected focal communities often had a historic tie to timber or forest product industries, were the site of a USFS office, were adjacent to national forest lands, or served as a major travel gateway to national forest attractions and recreational opportunities. The U.S. Forest Service entered into a cost-share agreement with the Center for Economic Development to prepare a series of in-depth reports, coalescing a broad range of public and proprietary data on social, economic, and demographic conditions in each community. Each community’s profile draws on numerous data sets from 18 distinct government or private sector data sources, and in many cases, these data are reported over a 10-30 year period to provide insights on the resilience of the community to past changes in forest policy, natural disasters, or economic downturns.
To ensure that voices from these rural communities were brought to the forefront during this process, the Sustainable Forest Action Coalition also contracted with the Center for Economic Development to initiate a survey research effort that would run in parallel with the profile development. Deployed in all 73 focal communities between 2016 and 2019, the questions were designed to assess how business owners and operators in these focal communities perceive that the opportunities and challenges for their business have changed over time. The study also examined indicators of the quality of life and social resilience of the communities, including their access to health care and to recreation. In total, 1,592 businesses participated statewide, representing roughly 7% of businesses across all focal communities. Key statistics are reported in each community’s profile report, and detailed survey results are presented in standalone reports for each of the four forest regions of California.
In short, this collaborative project represents an unprecedented effort to provide new tools for making data-driven decisions that explicitly account for the unique needs and important voices of rural California communities. Beyond the needs of the project partners, these data provide insights into rural communities with close ties to natural resources to land managers, economic development professionals, grassroots organizations, local governments, legislators, and educators.
The beta version of the data platform, complete with 73 community profiles and 4 regional survey reports, is available at forestcommunityresilience.org/map. Though efforts to reach out to focal communities, share the outcome of this multi-year partnership, and solicit feedback are still in progress, the project leaders welcome general questions, comments, and concerns from any interested parties. Please share these through the website. The availability of future funding to update the data is still uncertain, so emails of support from organizations and individuals who find this information beneficial, describing how you use the data and why you would like to see it continue to be updated in future, are particularly welcome.