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Creating Climate Resilient Communities By: Jill Scheffer, KEEN President

I moved to Ellensburg at the tail end of 1999 having just finished my masters degree in geography and environmental studies and wondering what kind of work I’d be able to find in this small town. After a few low paying gigs, I started grant writing for CWU in their foundation. I enjoyed learning about their various departments and program interests…but it wasn’t personally meaningful. Around that same time I met folks who would later become my co-founders of KEEN (see Blog #1), and I was hired by The Cascades Conservation Partnership (TCCP).

The goal of TCCP was to raise as much money as possible over four years and buy as much land as possible from private commercial timber owners in the Cascades. Between 2000-2004, this innovative collaborative project raised nearly $16 million in private donations and $68 million in public funds. We purchased and protected nearly 45,000 acres of forest lands from logging and development. Protected lands ranged from the Cooper River north of Cle Elum, to Snoqualmie and Stampede Pass along I-90, to Manastash Ridge southwest of Cle Elum and Sawmill Creek in the Green River watershed. This work protected 60 square miles of forest, rivers, and trails. 

It was incredibly difficult, but very satisfying, work. And it was of so much deep personal importance to me that I knew conservation would be my lifetime passion. In 2002 my family moved to Indiana where I continued my conservation work with the Land Trust Alliance, helping amazing nonprofit organizations become more sustainable and efficient.  When I moved back to Ellensburg in 2006, it was to become part of a regional land trust where my job was to work with farmers, ranchers, timber owners, and conservationists in Central Washington to preserve important lands from development. 

As I gained more experience over my career, I became engaged in a lot of supportive efforts that would make my job easier. I volunteered for land use committees at the county and city levels, I joined Ellensburg City Council, and I pioneered innovative conservation efforts including working farmland conservation easements and transfer of development rights programs. 

Most of my work could be categorized as “integrated land use planning”; the process of supporting decision makers and landowners in selecting the best combination of land uses to ultimately meet multiple needs for people while safeguarding natural resources and ecosystem services. The goal was to address issues such as population growth, increasing pressure on limited natural resources, land degradation, and unsustainable urban development. 

Climate change and community resiliency became an ever more pressing concern in my work over time. My career goals changed from simply preserving land from development to thinking holistically about the system of land use and how decisions could impact and insulate people from impending climate changes by helping to create a resilient community.

So how do we define climate resilience and how do we create a climate resilient community? Climate resilience is the “ability to anticipate, prepare for, and respond to hazardous events, trends, or disturbances related to climate” (like fire, flood, drought). Improving climate resilience involves assessing how climate change will create climate-related risks and taking steps to better cope with these risks.

As greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, climate change will continue to accelerate. Even if emissions were to stop today, the climate will continue to change as the Earth’s systems respond to the warming already underway. It makes sense to anticipate changes and act now to minimize future economic and social risks.

I served on the City of Ellensburg Council for 9 years. During that time, I worked on multiple efforts that included updating the community land use development code and solar energy efforts. Just this year, the City Council took a proactive step towards climate resilience by investing in infrastructure updates and climate-smart planning to mitigate the impacts of acute and chronic events. Governments and businesses alike are planning now for the environment and economy they will face in the future. Recent research has found that each $1 of government funds spent on risk mitigation returned $6 in value. This kind of planning makes sense for the community and for the budget.

I personally love the intersection between conservation and land use planning working through government systems and regulations. I’m weird, I know…and I’m Canadian…but I believe that we cannot achieve climate resilient communities without conservation AND sustainable land use planning. Nature offers a lot of potential to reduce climate risks, deal with the causes of climate change, and improve people’s lives. By restoring and safeguarding ecosystems on land and in the ocean, we help plants and animals to build climate resilience. Nature, in turn, can help us regulate the climate, give us clean, safe water, control pests and diseases, and pollinate our crops. That can lead to community resilience. 

But the other part of the equation is regulation and leadership at the government level. Individuals can make a lot of decisions at their personal level - reducing car use, building with sustainable materials, eating sustainably grown meat, reducing water use, etc. But for changes to occur at a community level (local, state, federal), the government needs to have a strong role. I now work for the WA Department of Ecology helping communities make improvements to their water resources by supporting grants to improve riparian habitat, conserving water, and planning for climate resiliency. 

In my leadership role with KEEN I am also always thinking about how to bring climate education and opportunities for community change to our work. I have seen local landowners make creative and innovative personal changes in the way they farm and in the way they approach development. KEEN is working hard to make sure those messages get to our kids who, ultimately, will inherit living on this land. How can we help them to not only improve community resilience, but live it every day? 

Environmental Education is not the answer to all our problems, but it is a huge part of finding new ways to live in this climate-altered world. KEEN’s efforts to connect our community to nature, to work to ensure that every day decisions are at least influenced by thinking holistically about where and how we live; and this is what keeps us going. You can learn more and engage with us this May at KEEN’s 25th Anniversary of Get Intimate with the Shrub-Steppe. The shrub-steppe is where we live, work, and play…find out how amazing this landscape truly is and how you can help support, preserve, conserve, and build community resilience. 

Learn more and register here: 


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