“Healthy environments, growing communities and economic viability do not have to be mutually exclusive events in small rural communities”
“Healthy environments, growing communities and economic viability do not have to be mutually exclusive events in small rural communities” – Allan Pietrasanta
Small towns in the Sierra of California and other mountainous regions throughout the west with recreation based economies, service economies, and tourism based economies are providing solid, healthy, stable jobs where mining, lumber mills and other extraction based industries have been shuttered. The outdoor industry can in a lot of ways successfully drive the future in the West.
Allan Pietrasanta has been active in conservation, small business, and working to build vibrant communities in the Sierra Nevada region of California for over 30 years. Currently he serves as Chairman of the Board of Sierra Business Council, a non-profit based in Truckee, CA and is also on the board of the Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center. I recently interviewed Allan for the Outdoor Biz Podcast podcast to gain more insight into how small mountain communities are tapping into this economic shift. (The interview below has been edited for space and clarity.)
Rick: I know now you're very involved in politics and currently are chairman of the Sierra Business Council board of directors. If anybody wants to know more about that visit the show notes for this episode or go to sierrabusiness.org. You're also one of the founders of the Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center. That's esavalanche.org, if you guys want to check that out. How did you get involved in some of the local and I guess national politics? What brought that on?
Allan: Very early on, as I got involved in the outdoors, I was influenced by the Sierra Club quite frankly and the writings of John Muir and seeing the values of activism and how important it is to protect the environment. When I moved up here, it was clear to me in a small community … The population of Inyo County is 19,000. I've lived here 40 years and the population has really not changed that much.
It's clear that you can have an influence here. As time went on I got more involved in issues across the Sierra, in terms of environmental issues and growth and change. Twenty plus years ago, I fell in with a group of people who were very frustrated by the sort of David Brower/Sierra Club view of, “Look. You either preserve the environment or we're going to sue you.” So this sort of litigation being the king-pin of all solutions for environmental issues was kind of frustrating to many of us and we-
Rick: Tie it up. Tie everything up in the courts. Yeah just bog it all down, right?
Allan: Bog it all down and let the lawyers make a lot of money. And I come in with a group of people who said, “Healthy environments, growing communities in the Sierra, economic viability do not have to be mutually exclusive events.” So we started many years ago something that now is embraced by many outdoor companies and actually even companies in bigger corporate America, which is the triple bottom line. Lending for any decision or issue, looking at the environmental issues, the financial aspects of it and then also the social effects of any decisions.
Rick: So now after all these years, we just learned recently that Americans spend $887 billion a year on outdoor recreation and the industry creates over 7 million jobs, growing out of what you guys started way back in the day. Do you have any current thoughts on maybe some of the local strategies that you guys use at SBC that might play well on the national stage and how do you think the outdoor industry can move forward now that they have some pretty major clout?
Allan: What all of that is showing is, very clearly, that in a place like the Sierra and many mountainous regions in the West, where they were traditionally economies based on resource extraction, what we have shown in the outdoor industry and what we're working very hard at Sierra Business Council to work with is that, it's no longer a resource of extractive economies. It's recreation based economies and service economies, and tourism based economies that can provide solid, healthy, stable jobs in these communities where mining has shut down, lumber mills have closed and that sort of thing. So clearly the outdoor industry is in a lot of ways will be the future health in the West.
Rick: Do you think that some of these economies … Like you mentioned some of the lumber economies are shutting down, do you think that some of those small towns can come back based on some of the outdoor recreation jobs? Because some of those places, they're in places where there's only activity in the summer and nothing happens in the winter or even the summer is slow because there's only fishing. Do you think some of those will grow? Have you seen some of that in the Sierra?
Allan: Well communities in the Sierra are benefiting from things like broadband availability, from attitudes of people where they want to flee the city and raise their families in a more rural area so they can move to cities and towns in the Sierra and still have access to the rest of the world and can conduct good business. A very good example, to answer your question, is up in Loyalton, CA where, an old timber area and lumber mills closed down there years ago, and just recently that lumber mill has been purchased and is going to be turned into a biomass facility creating huge amounts of biomass energy for the area up there. There's an industrial park adjacent to the old lumber mill that's all rigged already for energy intensive manufacturing. You know things that would take a lot of energy to produce. It's all set up. Those are going to create good jobs that are non-tourist recreation oriented jobs in an old lumber town. It's kind of a full circle.
Rick: What kind of products do those manufacturers produce? Give me an example of an energy intensive product?
Allan: Well besides the energy that will be produced, which is always going to have a market-
Rick: Right. I'm sure a lot of those places will be producing solar energy and wind energy and things like that.
Allan: Yeah. Yeah. At this biomass facility one of the by-products being looked at with wood pulp is a bullet proof vest.
Allan: They can make a really strong, solid bullet proof vest with this new technology-
Allan: I think it's still in the R&D stage. But one idea down the road is to get the University of California system involved in doing research at this facility about wood pulp by-products.
Rick: That's pretty cool.
Allan: The other thing I was going to say is this kind of thing with a plant like this that was previously a lumber mill, turning it into a biomass facility, not only brings full circle for jobs into a rural depressed area and keeps away in the case of Sierra Valley or where Loyalton's located, rural sprawl from Reno. Also in this case, the raw product for this facility is wood and there's a chance to harvest all these dead trees in the Sierra, which is creating another problem for fire danger.
Rick: Right. So they could re-energize the old growth forest and material to produce these vests.
Allan: Yeah. They can harvest all this dead wood and accomplish, create better forest health on the one hand and at the same time have economic activity in an otherwise rurally depressed area.
Rick: I'm sure you still give to many conservation groups. I'm sure you guys aren't the only people doing this. There have got to be examples around the country of things such as this. How can we leverage that as an industry?
Allan: Well I would like to see the companies in the outdoor industry, embrace ever deeply work on climate change and its ramifications for the areas where their customers recreate. I would like to see them involved with forest health, water quality issues, working with communities to reduce their carbon footprint, as manufacturers in their process working to reduce their carbon footprint. I think there's a tremendous amount of opportunity on that. The other thing to see outdoor companies do is work loudly and clearly with their customer base and their elected officials around them to help preserve and maintain these beautiful public lands that are being currently threatened with the current political climate.
Rick: Right. Yeah it seems to me that there's a huge opportunity for every outdoor industry company to reach out directly to their consumer a little more than they're doing. That could be the next wave of grassroots activism that we see is these companies involving their consumer, which would be terrific.
Allan: Yeah. I mean the companies need to realize that, as one example, this effort to group by states or local counties and grab federal land, whether it's BLM land or park land or Forest Service land, and turn them into local control. What has happened, like up in the state of Utah, the state's just sold that to private industry thereby losing access and losing open space land to recreate in. That's a serious threat to the whole industry and to our environment in general. I think it's a great opportunity for the outdoor industry to really step forward for the environment.
Rick: Yep. Yep. I think a lot of people support that view. So we have about five minutes left. Do you have any thoughts or suggestions for a young person just getting out of high school, just graduating college, wanting to repeat the Allan Pietrasanta move to Bishop and live in the hills? Any thoughts on where those folks should look for work? Some things they might consider doing? Any advice to the young folks out there?
Allan: Yeah. Yeah, Rick, I have advice. It's two words, “Get out.” I think I would encourage all of us, young and old to continue to get out. Go check out what it feels like to sleep in the forest and spend all night hearing the winds rip through the trees. Or climb some peak and get sweaty and dirty and enjoy the view from the summit. Or go run that rapid in the river and realize you survived it. But get out. There's nothing like it and it will open your mind to more outdoor activities. You and I grew up in a generation of people that embraced it deeply and changed their lives because of it. Maybe not everybody can do that, but I can tell you that it's a great compliment to whatever else is going on in your daily life to get out.
Allan and I are close friends and together with his wife Diana enjoy many backcountry forays in the eastern sierra to GET OUT!