KEEN Connects: Accommodating growth while protecting what we love
If you value and want to preserve the earth, where would you choose to live to make the least impact? A rural area or an urban area? That’s the million-dollar question. As the Daily Record recently reported, Kittitas County is now in the top 10 fastest growing counties in the United States, and Ellensburg is the third fastest growing “micro area” in the country.
Why are so many moving here? Kittitas County and Ellensburg are known for our weather with four true seasons, our recreational opportunities, and our festivals and events. We are known as an “amenity-driven” rural community. Common sense suggests that amenities—favorable climates, attractive scenery, and diverse recreational opportunities — draw people to a region, and research supports this idea.
I recently attended a presentation given by the League of Women Voters and the City of Ellensburg regarding a study about Ellensburg’s housing crunch. We essentially have an upside-down housing situation—too many people in the market for single and double bedroom apartments and not enough supply. This situation leads to sky-high rental costs, low rental availability, and only a small market for home ownership.
This housing problem is seen across amenity-driven rural areas. Amenities such as outdoor recreation, festivals, and tourism provide mostly low-wage, service-sector jobs, instead of sustainable employment at a living wage. At the same time, locals experience increased costs of living because of the increased demand. Folks from outside the area buy second homes, putting even more strain on the housing market and driving up costs for everyone. You can see that in long-established amenity areas in the country — ski resorts are great examples — people cannot afford to live where they work.
One might naturally assume that living in a rural area has a smaller impact, in terms of resource use, and is better for the environment than living in a big city. But in rural areas, land owners often replace the natural ecosystem (forest or shrub-steppe in our region) and import a non-native one (lawns and small ranchettes), drawing on heavy inputs of chemicals, water, and energy. Researchers have found that the same homeowners who described themselves as environmentalists were also the most likely to manage their yards intensively, adding higher-than-average inputs of lawn-maintenance chemicals.
Wherever people live, native ecosystems are disturbed. In general, high-density urban settlement reduces the area over which intensive development alters the ecosystem. Lower-density rural development often deforests, fragments, or otherwise disrupts much larger areas per household. City residents can take advantage of smaller living and yard spaces, a lower dependence on automobiles, and more efficient use of infrastructure (e.g. roads, utility connections) to consume less resources per person.
At the individual level, many environmentalists today are still instinctively anti-urban. Their ideal of life is not the city. People move to the country because they love nature, but in some ways that could be called loving nature to death.
What can we do?
To lessen the human and environmental impacts of a growing county and city, we have to be aware of where and how the growth takes place. We can push for higher-density, lower-cost housing that takes advantage of existing infrastructure. We can look for and encourage development of industries that provide a living wage, in addition to expanding the service economy that supports our amenities. We can make sure to protect the parts of our region that we love—the shrub steppe and forest ecosystems, the recreation opportunities, the festivals and events—while at the same time making room to share.
Many of us, living in Kittitas County and Ellensburg, have moved to a rural area to experience the rural lifestyle. We at the Kittitas Environmental Education Network (KEEN), work every day to connect our community to the environment and create a sense of place for our citizens. We work to inspire a love and appreciation of our surroundings in our children and neighbors.
KEEN believes in the following core principles: Power of community; respect for all life; personal experience; frequent experiences in nature are critical to the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual health of all people; stewardship of the land; and commitment to sustainability.
These core principles lead us to make different life choices as individuals, but also to put our passion towards creating an ethic of respect and concern for our surroundings. KEEN hosts events such as the Winter Fair which celebrates sustainable living choices in our region, Get Intimate with the Shrub-Steppe which highlights our native endangered habitat, and in-town events like the Urban Tree Walk and Urban Stream Walk which highlight issues for our more urban community.
KEEN remains connected to our community and works to connect others. We invite folks to learn more, join us on committees addressing environmental education and establishing the Yakima Canyon Interpretive Center just five miles south of Ellensburg. Find out more at our website www.ycic.org and help us discuss and strategize for accommodating the growth that is coming our way, while still retaining the natural elements that are the reason most people move here in the first place.
Jill Scheffer is one of the original founders of KEEN. KEEN Connects is a monthly column produced by Kittitas Environmental Education Network (KEEN) board members and volunteers. Learn more at