When poet and environmentalist Gary Snyder was asked more than 40 years ago what the most important thing someone could do for the environment was, he offered a brief but remarkable and often repeated response: “Stay home.” Two words, both profound, and as Rebecca Solnit has noted, radical.
What does it mean to “stay home?”
This is a question I’ve sought to answer throughout my career, and one I founded Ecotrust to explore. My friend, ecologist, and professor of UC Mexus, Dr. Exequiel Ezcurra, described the challenge this way: “One of our biggest problems is our lost sense of place. The development of a sense of belonging, a sense of place within a bioregion, is one of the most important challenges we face.”
Staying home, building a sense of place, is a fundamental principle of Ecotrust’s approach. We look to the way nature organizes itself into distinct “homes” at a scale sufficient to imagine global possibility. There are natural competitive advantages of bioregions, such as the coastal temperate rain forests of North America. Each bioregion is different from the next and embedded in those differences are economic opportunities for the differentiation (versus the commodification) of goods and services; the heart of qualitative economic development. Within the context of our bioregion, we identified the “rain forests of home,” to distinguish them from the popular conception of tropical rain forests, and we also articulated the broader concept of nature-state (versus nation-state), in our case “Salmon Nation,” the region up and down the Pacific Northwest where wild Pacific salmon live at sea and in inland watersheds.
And, we look to the worldview of the people who have made their home here since the most ancient times. In this bioregion, one of the densest and most diverse populations of hunter-gatherer indigenous peoples in the world have lived for more than 10,000 years. They were not just survivors but created rich and complex tribal communities with extraordinary culture, art, mythologies and some 63 distinct languages reflecting subtle differences in geography up and down the 2,000-mile coastline from Alaska to California. Over thousands and thousands of years, they learned to stay home in the most profound way. And they aren’t leaving now, despite the horrific effects of systematic genocide and colonialism that continue today.
Investing in stay
So many of Ecotrust’s long term investments in “stay” imply working to help repatriate land and resources to tribes and First Nations. The vagaries of politics, which today appear more fitful and effervescent than ever, imply that perhaps the sovereign First Nations of the bioregion just might be the most secure in the long term. And, it is the right thing to do.
For 25 years we have thought about our support to indigenous people as “Just Transactions, Just Transitions,” short term, tangible projects designed to support the long term resurgence of sovereignty. These place-based initiatives are focused on Native American and First Nations communities of the coastal temperate rain forests of North America — our home, and the central bioregion that shapes our experimental work. Importantly, the idea of indigenous sovereignty is also related to the idea of “act local, think global,” from households, to neighborhoods, to communities and cities, to watersheds, which can all be thought of as fractal expressions of a larger strategy.
Salmon Nation includes one of the most culturally diverse and biologically rich bioregions in the world. Here, we’ve tried to answer whether it is possible to reverse the downward spiral of environmental, social, and economic degradation with an approach that maintains and restores ecosystem health, reduces the disparity between rich and poor, and increases economic opportunity for as many as possible.
A wondrous source of learning has been our work in and with indigenous communities; supporting Native leadership, building information gathering and analytical capabilities, brokering capital and technology, repatriating land, helping to restore forests and salmon and access to fisheries and, perhaps, and most importantly, helping to give credibility to a different worldview.
By “Just Transactions,” we mean helping tribes gain greater access, ownership, sovereignty, and control over lands and resources. By “Just Transitions,” we mean a deliberate and strategic approach to the process of building more reliably prosperous communities.
Here are a few of the ways in which Ecotrust and our subsidiary EFM (Ecotrust Forest Management) have supported tribes from California to Alaska.
In partnership with Ecotrust Canada in 2001, we repatriated patented (private) land in the otherwise intact 44,500-acre Koeye River watershed to the Heiltsuk First Nation of Bella Bella, British Columbia.
In 2007, Ecotrust CDE directed $5 million in New Markets Tax Credit (NMTC) investment in a new tribal headquarters for the Colville Tribe in Nespelem, Washington and $7 million in NMTC investment in the Kalispel Tribe’s new wastewater treatment facility in Usk, Washington.
And through the North Pacific Fisheries Trust, we helped repatriate fishing quota to Community Quota Entities in Alaskan Native communities.
The concepts of stay home, stay where, stay how are challenging in a world Thomas Friedman in his latest book Thank You for Being Late, describes as a world living in a hurricane of intersecting forces of globalization, technology, and climate change, forces of a scale and speed never before witnesses by humanity. “We need to learn to dance in the eye of a hurricane,” he said at a World Affairs Council address in Portland last year. We need at least pockets of humanity, of craft, of community and well-being and hopefulness. And one way just might be to stay home, and learn from those who have done so the longest.