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Maybe because they have so much of it, rural communities often have a deep and interdependent relationship to the land.
At a Friday symposium hosted by the Kansas University School of Law, experts from around the country came to talk about both: rural communities and the land they live on.
The challenges facing those small communities in Kansas and around the country are many. Populations have dwindled as agriculture has becomes less labor-intensive and manufacturing has declined. The population is aging, with young, educated workers heading for the cities.
As Gary Green, a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, pointed out at Friday's conference, the primary needs of rural communities are often in conflict with each other.
He calls it the "triple bottom line": the need for jobs, environmental protection and social justice. Although Green said the tradeoffs aren't unresolvable, they need to be considered when thinking about the long-term survival of rural communities.
Historically, rural areas have often depended on nearby natural resources for immediate economic gain and to provide jobs. But Green pointed to an alternate model, where the natural settings are preserved as an asset to attract people who want to live amid natural beauty.
"One way to resolve the contradiction between the environment, jobs and long-term sustainability is by valuing natural resources for long-term goals," Green said.
Symposium speakers pointed to other kinds of value the environment holds for rural communities. John Nolon, a law professor at Pace University in White Plains, New York, said prairies, forests and other natural ecosystems are crucial storehouses of carbon gases that could provide revenue in a carbon trading system.
K.K. DuVivier, a professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, said that rural states in the midwest might capitalize on wind energy. Kansas is ranked second in the country in wind energy capacity and could become a net exporter, she said.
In development, water management, zoning and just about every other facet of land use, coordinating across rural areas has proven extremely difficult. One of the main challenges, as both Green and Nolon pointed out, is that a hodgepodge of local councils, zoning commissions, planning committees and other entities control land use. To find solutions, speakers said communities must coordinate their efforts.