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Rural Issues Introduction

Occupying more than 80 percent of the nation's landmass, and accounting for a fifth of its population, rural America is rich in its ecological and cultural diversity. The size and complexity of rural America make it difficult to generalize about its problems or assets, though some common characteristics exist. For much of their existence, rural communities have relied on the wealth of natural resources found in the landscape. But in the 20th Century great changes -- technological, political and economic -- have brought a profound transformation to agriculture and other renewable resource industries and to the rural communities dependent on them.

And while such changes have yielded social benefits, they have also carried with them a cost. Today, we see small and medium-sized farms struggle in an increasingly concentrated and global economy. (Some of these difficulties are described in A Time to Act, a 1998 report from the USDA's National Commission on Small Farms.) Similarly, forest communities grapple with a change in natural resource management priorities and mounting environmental concerns. A "digital divide" threatens to exclude some rural communities from the benefits of the new information economy. Some rural communities face a drain of population, while others, particularly those with high scenic or recreational value, struggle with burgeoning populations placing new demands on ecosystems and traditional ways of life.

Despite these challenges, there is still plenty of cause for optimism. Resilience and self-determination are two traits that characterize many rural communities. For rural America, the rapid pace of change brings with it not only challenges but opportunities as well. In some ways, sustainable development aims to manage change that is inevitable, and to do it in ways that are economically sound, environmentally responsible and socially equitable. The most successful communities strive to build on local assets and abilities while adopting and adapting new ideas and technologies to the local context.

In Towards a Sustainable America, the final report of the President's Council on Sustainable Development, authors noted that while rural America faces a different set of concerns and issues than metropolitan areas, "these rural, suburban, and urban areas are mutually dependent; and much information and analysis is needed regarding their connections, such as those between food production, food dependence, and ecosystem management." The report looked to a variety of new development strategies, "ones that appreciate the fragility and vulnerability of rural economies and social structures."

This section aims to highlight the efforts rural communities undertake in pursuit of sustainability. Given the breadth of issues and concerns facing rural America, the topical scope of this section is broad, ranging from sustainable agriculture and renewable resource use to alternative economic development strategies and rural telecommunications. The aim here is not to articulate one vision of rural sustainability but rather to offer an overview of some of the successful approaches, as well as the tools and resources available to assist rural Americans pursue their own course of sustainable development.

To begin this exploration, the following links help frame the issue of rural sustainable development:

Understanding Rural America, a report from the Economic Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture.

Center for the Study of Rural America of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

Last updated November 13, 2002

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