Andrew Spaeth (’14) noticed two amazing things in a stand of aspen in the Mount Hood National Forest: the first was the trees themselves, ecologically beneficial and rebounding on the mountain despite their decline across the region. The second was the people he was with: a big game hunter, an ornithologist, an environmental activist — all were smiling about the same thing: a healthy forest.
Spaeth is the Forest Program Director for Sustainable Northwest, an organization committed to finding natural resource management solutions that foster ecological resilience, reduce conflict and increase economic opportunities for rural communities.
Spaeth is the guy who brings people to the table. A professional mediator, Spaeth facilitates conversations for groups as diverse as the U.S. Forest Service, Native American tribes, the timber industry and environmentalists. He helps groups create collaborative solutions to natural resource management issues that impact the health and well-being of public lands and the communities that surround them.
“We hear a lot about the things that are most polarizing in society, but there is actually a lot we all agree on,” he says. “We all care about the legacy we’re leaving for our children and the forests and rivers that make the Pacific Northwest such an amazing place.”
It wasn’t always that way. Sustainable Northwest was founded in the 1990s, when urban conservationists and rural communities were deeply divided. The conflict came to a head when effigies of two well known environmentalists were hung on the streets of a small town near Joseph, Oregon.
The organization’s founder stepped forward to serve as a mediator between the sides. Sustainable Northwest grew from there. Spaeth, who grew up on a farm in Southwestern
Minnesota, has a personal investment in healthy rural communities. He came to Sustainable Northwest three years ago after completing his Master of Public Policy at Oregon State. He proudly says that he wouldn’t be where he is today without the opportunities he found at OSU.
“I was in the School of Public Policy but I had opportunities to engage with some of the leading thinkers in their field across a whole host of disciplines — economics, forestry, sociology. That’s pretty incredible,” he says. The moments of shared connection and collaboration motivate Spaeth to continue building bridges between urban and rural communities, whether it’s at the bargaining table or at a barbecue.
Spaeth says building trust takes time. But like a healthy forest returning to the mountain, attitudes can have healthy growth too.
“At a community and state level, we’re seeing people recognize the value of this approach and work to embrace collaboration,” he says. “And with cool heads and the collective thinking of diverse groups — we’re going to get there.”
-Story by Rebecca Olson