Linking the state’s urban and rural regions: An action plan for California’s “working landscapes”

150 150 Justin Ewers

(photo credit: Jon Starbuck)

As California continues to grow—the state’s population is expected to pass 50 million in the next 40 years—it will only become more important to develop sustainable approaches to managing the state’s working landscapes, from farmland and ranches to forests and wetlands.

These landscapes already connect California’s urban and rural regions in the most basic ways—providing food and clean air and water, just for starters. And while the state has a set of policies and regulations for managing them, these efforts could be better aligned—and could do more to ensure California remains a healthy place to live, work, and play.

The 2013 California Economic Summit, by bringing together leaders from urban and rural regions to support a shared statewide agenda for creating jobs and protecting the environment, provides a rare forum for taking on this challenge.

The Summit’s Working Landscapes action plan, one of seven initiatives the Summit will be advancing this year, lays out a broad framework for how the state can get this done. The plan offers a range of proposals that would allow California to better manage its working lands, providing a steady source of diverse jobs (from agriculture to energy production), while also protecting vital natural resources (including clear air and wildlife habitat).

Breaking down walls between urban and rural

The key to success will be finding a way to integrate these efforts. “We have a real opportunity to build bridges between our urban and rural areas,” Working Landscapes team co-leader Glenda Humiston, California state rural development director at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, told an assembly of Summit action team leaders in a briefing with state officials in October. “For too long, we’ve had walls between urban and rural in this state, and it hasn’t served either.”

The Summit’s plan not only pushes the state to be more deliberate about how its policies balance the needs of urban growth and environmental sustainability—it also offers a way to protect both urban and rural areas from the potentially devastating consequences of failing to make the connections between these efforts.                                                                                                 

Humiston points to the recent Rim Fire near Yosemite, one of the largest wildfires in state history, as an example of what can go wrong when urban and rural planning don’t go hand in hand.

“This was a case where the city of San Francisco almost lost its water and electrical supply,” Humiston said about the moment when the fire came between the city of nearly a million people and the Hetch Hetchy reservoir. “If the city, in the past, had put only 50 cents a month into forest health work, that fire would have been avoided—as would the damage that’s going to occur this fall and winter when the rains start silting up Hetch Hetchy.”

A Working Landscapes plan

The Summit’s Working Landscapes plan includes five proposals that would improve the state’s ability to take on this challenge—and to better understand the true costs and benefits of investing in California’s working landscapes:

  1. Data-based modeling: The plan pushes the state to develop better data and spatial modeling to provide a range of economic and environmental indicators that can drive data-based strategies for protecting and enhancing working landscapes. One way to do this would be to scale up the funding of an open-source software and resource-planning project started by the Urban Footprint and Sacramento Area Council of Government’s Rural-Urban Connections Strategy (RUCS)—an effort that has enhanced the region’s ability to analyze the costs and benefits of environmental services and resource-based industries.
  2. Policy integration: The plan also pushes the state to integrate the outcomes of existing state planning frameworks—including AB 32, SB 375, and a range of farmland protection and watershed management laws. These efforts all have laudable goals, but are often implemented in uncoordinated and inconsistent fashion, burdening land managers without producing a corresponding benefit. The plan pushes for a more integrated framework, one driven by well-defined regional objectives for land and water management. At the Summit, John Laird, secretary of the state’s Natural Resources Agency, will explain how the governor’s just-released 5-year water plan could inform this effort.
  3. Market-based incentives: The Summit plan puts a special emphasis on the importance of testing market-based incentives to reward land stewardship that enhances ecosystem services and demonstrates societal benefits of resource management. This includes, among other proposals, implementing the recommendations of the California Roundtable on Agriculture and the Environment’s 2012 report, Guidelines for Creating Effective Ecosystem Services Incentive Programs and Policy.
  4. Capital investments: The state must also align public and private investments to create a competitive advantage in markets and industries connected to working landscapes and rural communities. In addition to taking advantage of the emerging bio-economy, this includes making investments in infrastructure that align with an integrated state and regional goods movement strategy.
  5. Communication and collaboration: To build public support for these ideas, the plan also encourages the creation of a coalition to promote understanding of the value of working landscapes.

For the Working Landscapes plan to succeed, of course, it must also integrate these proposals with those of several of the other seven initiatives the Summit is advancing this year.

“Our ideas support the recommendations of Infrastructure, Workforce, Regulations, and Housing—almost word-for-word in some cases,” said Humiston. “Working Landscapes can support all of these other areas, but most important of all, it builds bridges.”

At the Summit this week in Los Angeles, more than 500 business, government, nonprofit, and civic leaders will have an opportunity to determine how, exactly, these bridges are built.


Justin Ewers

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