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A Founder of the Next Economy

When rural economies are in trouble, community leaders often turn to the same old solutions - extract more from the natural environment or make big concessions to recruit large companies. Alana Probst has been developing a very differnt approach.

When Alana Probst argues that it is possible to make a livelihood that does not overtax nature, she cannot be accused of being an armchair environmentalist who doesn't know what it is like making a living off the land. Her father was the general manager of a large sawmill operation that used clear-cut techniques on some of the best forests in Oregon. A tall, blonde woman with an easy smile, Probst grew up in a number of small towns, moving from one logging community to another as the supplies of standing timber were exhausted. She knows what it is like to see people lose their jobs and be forced to move out of town after an area is logged out.

It is this background, as a member of a fourth-generation logging family, as well as her training as an economist that equips Probst to talk with loggers, farmers, and fishermen about changing the way they harvest the bounty of nature in the Pacific Northwest.

Probst is one of a number of economists who are pioneering a new field of conservation-based development in which the emphasis is on creating jobs that are ecologically sustainable. The central thesis of conservation-based development is that passing laws and regulations that protect nature, without providing for the needs of local people, is a strategy doomed to failure. To protect an ecosystem, the people who live in it must have access to the information, tools, and capital necessary to build enterprises that do not destroy the vitality of the ecosystem on which they depend.

This conservation and job-generation approach was tested by Probst in Willapa Bay, Washington, a watershed about the size of Rhode Island that is host to one of the healthiest estuaries remaining on the west coast.

Twenty-one bird species, nine plants, two salamanders, a butterfly, and a snail on the threatened or endangered species list make their homes in the Willapa Bay rainforest. The Douglas fir and western hemlock also provide a habitat for elk, black bear, mule deer, mountain lion, bobcat, coyote, raccoon, beaver, river otter, northern flying squirrel, and many small rodents and insect eaters.

Willapa's rich ecosystem also provides a living for many of its 20,000 residents, and as a result, much of Willapa is essentially a farming community. One out of every six oysters consumed in the US is cultivated in 10,000 acres of Willapa tidelands. Some 25,000 to 200,000 chum, coho, and Chinook salmon are caught in these waters every year,  lthough, as the salmon catch has declined, hatcheries are replacing the wild runs of these fish. Around 14,000 acres of cranberry bogs form the agricultural base of the community. And loggers harvest native trees from the surrounding forests.

Not surprisingly, local harvests have put tremendous stress on the ecosystem. By 1977, half of the shoreline wetlands had been diked. Since then, road building and industrial development have further diminished tidal marshland. An epidemic of inedible ghost shrimp – likely caused by the overfishing of chum salmon, which had previously kept the ghost shrimp populations in check – has wiped out 20,000 to 30,000 acres of cultivated mud flats, thereby reducing the oyster population as well. In addition, Willapa's forests have taken a big hit from logging.


Seeing the ecosystem as a whole
Having identified the Willapa watershed as an ecosystem worth working to preserve, officials at Ecotrust, a small conservation group located in Portland, Oregon, assembled a team of conservation-based development specialists to provide financial support, and business planning and marketing assistance to ecologically sustainable enterprises within the watershed. Alana Probst joined this team and then moved to Willapa Bay, where she worked with a select group of local entrepreneurs.

“We wanted to find ways for small businesses to become engines for environmental restoration of ecosystems damaged by humans,” Probst says.

But from the outset, any project such as this is fraught with pitfalls. Many rural communities are sharply divided over conservation and resource extraction issues. It is not unusual for local farmers, loggers, fishers, and ranchers to be suspicious of big city environmentalists who blow into town for a few days to lecture them on how they are not treating Mother Nature with the respect that is her due, and then proceed to tell them how they should run their businesses.

Fortunately, Probst and others at Ecotrust were savvy enough to recognize that this kind of approach could not succeed. Instead, they moved to town quietly and began searching out local entrepreneurs with whom they could work. In concert with the Nature Conservancy, they organized a meeting in 1992 out of which the Willapa Alliance was formed, a group of local residents whose board of directors includes oyster growers, fishers, farmers, small business operators, landowners, and members of the Shoalwater Bay Native American tribe. Describing itself as “dedicated to developing and implementing strategies for sustainable, conservation-based economic development in the Willapa ecosystem,” the Alliance was formed out of a sense that previous efforts to keep the Willapa Bay ecosystem healthy had failed to see the ecosystem as a whole.

But building a sustainable economy in Willapa means more than just talking people into installing efficient septic systems so that sewage will not contaminate the bay. It also involves creating jobs that add value to sustainably harvested resources. During the first year she lived in Willapa Bay, Probst watched 13 small businesses and noticed that none could get a bank loan to expand operations. To meet this need for capital, Probst went looking for money to invest in fledgling eco-sensitive enterprises. Her search led to the South Shore Bank in Chicago, a progressive bank that has invested over $500 million in low- and moderate-income minority communities in Chicago using innovative yet rigorous banking practices. By 1994, Ecotrust and South Shore's holding company, Shorebank Corporation, began to work together with a small number of local entrepreneurs. The idea was to focus on enterprises that rely on a healthy, productive, and intact ecosystem for successful production.

Probst and her colleagues opened Shorebank Enterprise Pacific, a nonprofit business development group and loan fund supported by Ecotrust and Shorebank Corporation, which provides non-bank loans and business expertise to local businesses seeking to improve environmental management. Shorebank Enterprise, joined by its sister for-profit bank, ShoreBank Pacific, now has a $5.2 million high-risk revolving loan fund designed to improve environment and equity through economic opportunity.

One of the local entrepreneurs Shorebank Enterprise supported is Karen Snyder, owner of Anna Lena's, a manufacturer of specialty foods made from cranberries. For decades, cranberries have been the most valuable agricultural crop in Willapa Bay because the bogs along the coast provide ideal conditions for them. Most of Willapa's cranberries, however, are shipped off to large juice manufacturers such as Ocean Spray instead of being processed locally.

Karen Snyder decided to buck this trend. “It was sad when people couldn't buy cranberries in an area where they are surrounded by them,” observes Snyder. Snyder cooked up a recipe for cranberry relish passed down to her by her great-grandmother, Anna Lena, bottled it, and sold it locally. She now sells 40 specialty items made from cranberries, including cranberry catsup, scone mix, and jelly.

As the business grew, Snyder got help with marketing through Shorebank Enterprise. She also redesigned her labels to emphasize the firm's environmental values, the pristine environment in which the cranberries are harvested, and the natural processing techniques used. In 1997, Snyder expanded her operation by planting her own cranberry bog and opening a local retail store.

Shorebank Enterprise also made a loan to a local crab fisher, who took steps to modify his fishing practices. For example, he agreed to forego crabbing during molting season when crabs' shells are soft and liable to damage. When the crabber became a major buyer of crabs in the area, other fishers changed their practices, too, multiplying the environmental benefits of the loan.

Loans were also granted to someone who makes crab pots out of recycled materials; and to a low-income housing project where people can invest sweat equity in their own homes, which are designed to be resource and energy efficient. ShoreTrust is focusing its loans on farming, fishing, forestry, and tourism because these are all enterprises that are resource-based and depend on good stewardship of the environment to survive, Probst explains. As similar businesses start up and gain strength, it is hoped that there will be enough people in the Willapa watershed who are so dependent on the vitality of nature that they will fight to protect it.


From Eco-Pioneers: Practical Visionaries Solving Today's Environmental Problems. Copyright © 1997 by Steve Lerner. Published by the MIT Press.

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