Best of the West: New tools boost rural economies using energy, outdoor recreation; the mystery of Mt. St. Helens; the baker warming Wyoming hearts

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting Jan. 18, 2021. (Photo courtesy Outdoor Recreation Roundtable)

Western Governors are constantly looking for ways to boost rural economic development. Reimagining the Rural West, WGA’s most recent Chair Initiative, focused significant effort in that area. In part, the initiative highlighted opportunities for communities to develop outdoor recreation economies that increase tourism and boost employment opportunities during workshops in New Mexico and Idaho. Additionally, the Special Report of the initiative included a recommendation to educate and train rural citizens for the jobs in their communities, including the growing demand for workers in outdoor recreation.

All of which makes a new effort by the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable (ORR) that much more significant. The ORR Rural Economic Development Toolkit seeks to help rural communities build their outdoor recreation economies. The toolkit provides information on 15 best practices, from “Identify and Empower Local Champions” to “Build Collaboratives.” It also, according to ORR, “outlines the challenges rural communities could face as they take the steps to build their outdoor recreation economy – including limited staff, administrative bandwidth and funding challenges.”

ORR has also compiled a list of federal grants and technical assistance to “support these communities in securing the funding and assistance they will need to accomplish their economic goals.” The upside of such efforts can be significant: ORR notes that outdoor recreation generates $788 billion in economic output, comprising 2.1% of U.S. GDP and supporting 5.2 million jobs.

Meanwhile in Kansas, you might say rural economic development is in the wind. There’s no doubt that the Sunflower State has plenty of wind, a fact reinforced in a recent report by Business Facilities’ that ranked Kansas No. 1 during 2020 in percentage of energy generated by wind and No. 4 in installed wind power capacity. “Our state is a driving force when it comes to wind power,” Gov. Laura Kelly said. “My administration will continue to support wind power initiatives that create jobs and boost economic development statewide.”

An example of one of those initiatives was announced recently by a group of researchers in the state, who believe they can help rural communities thrive by showing them how to optimize their already abundant wind energy opportunities. The idea is to produce “cheaper energy” that can, for example, be used to treat water and maintain agricultural systems, while building on the region’s current use of wind energy.

Over the next five year the researchers will gather information about rural communities – including population size, average wind speed, and money the community has available to invest – to build an online tool that will assist community leaders, farmers, local and state governments in deciding whether these community projects will be economically sustainable.

The WGA Policy Resolution, Energy in the West, sets forth an all-of-the above approach to energy that includes wind. (Read, download).

Out of Place? Look at a map and you'll see that the volcanic peaks of the Pacific Northwest stand in a straight line -- except for one. Mt. St. Helens, in southwest Washington state, sits more than 25 miles west of the other peaks. Now National Geographic is taking a closer look at the volcano that more than 40 years ago flattened 135 square miles of forest and killed 57 people in the country’s deadliest eruption. Despite that history, scientist Seth Moran declares “There shouldn’t be a volcano where Mount St. Helens is.” Learn how the work of scientists is explaining this seemingly contrary volcano.

Waste Not: The Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project has been thinning the forest around that Arizona city to protect drinking water sources from wildfire. The Arizona Daily Sun now reports their work has another positive outcome: The logs left over are being processed into free firewood for northern Arizonans, including residents of the Navajo and Hopi reservations. "It’s winter … so we want to make sure that, rather than having wood sitting here, that it’s sitting in people’s yards and they’re getting to burn it,” said Neil Chapman, manager for the thinning project. Nearly 170 cords of firewood already have been delivered across the Hopi reservation and to Leupp on the Navajo Nation.

Loaves of Hope: The pandemic has seen a boon in bread baking by those closely confined to quarters. But Wyoming Public Radio reports that a mystery is, you might say, rising in the town of Sheridan. It seems that an anonymous soul, who solely exists as the Instagram handle the Loaf Project, has been dropping off fresh loaves of bread at the doors of strangers who need the help. Learn more

State of the State: This week saw Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak become the latest Western Governor to deliver a State of the State address. He joins Doug Burgum of North Dakota, Brad Little of Idaho, Doug Ducey of Arizona, Laura Kelly of Kansas and Kristi Noem of South Dakota, who previously delivered addresses. Read, watch all addresses and meet the new Western Governors inaugurated in American Samoa, Montana and Utah.

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