Forest Management as Economic Resilience

Southeastern Illinois Regional Planning and Development Commission

Though wildfires and natural disasters have been making headlines on the West Coast of the United States in recent years, interior forest lands are also at risk of disastrous wildfire incidents that can quickly spiral out of control. Threats to these national forest lands present a clear ecological, as well as economic, risk to communities that derive extensive economic activity and benefits from their local connections to these forest lands.

A Regional Voice and Convener

Southeastern Illinois Regional Planning and Development Commission (SIRPDC) works with five rural counties along the Ohio River to advance economic and community development opportunities in its communities. The region, intertwined with the Shawnee National Forest, is known for its dense forested areas and has become a local and statewide travel destination for outdoor recreation tourism in past years as well as a key site for regional timber production and mineral extraction (see the SIRPDC 2021-2026 CEDS for a regional economic breakdown).  The 2017 U.S. Forest Service report Shawnee National Forest Benefits to People notes that total spending related to tourism in the national forest accounts for $16.8 million in annual spending. Along with sales tax revenue that is generated for local governments from this spending, this outside spending brought in from other regions and states significantly supports local businesses.

Due to the volatile and broad impact of wildfires, regional organizations are well-suited to coordinate emergency response planning, address risks across multiple county and municipal jurisdictions, and support efforts to promote regional and local resiliency. More rural and under resourced areas can be weak points in a regions’ wildfire defense and response strategy. Geographically farther away from emergency management personnel bases with smaller, unpaved roads, and under-resourced and underequipped rural volunteer fire districts, rural areas can be at a higher risk of wildfires spreading out of control.

In partnership with the Illinois Emergency Management Agency which provided planning funds, the local Shawnee National Forest Supervisors Office and SWCA Environmental Consultants which provided technical expertise, SIRPDC staff aimed to address issues challenging their rural fire districts and developed Community Wildfire Protection Plans for two of its most rural counties: Hardin and Pope. The Shawnee National Forest is a major presence in the region with 24% of Hardin County and 35% of Pope County comprised of federally protected forest land.

Outcomes from the Planning Process

These protection plans came together by synthesizing the strengths, needs, and challenges of the region sourced from local stakeholder input meetings, data analyses of the regions’ geographic and topographic features, and analyses of the local capacity to prevent and respond to wildfire risks. SIRPDC was well-suited for this role due to staff experience conducting the CEDS and other regional planning opportunities. Outlining strategies for hazardous fuel reduction, proactive forest management, and prescribed fires, the plans provide SIRPDC and its partners with a framework for improving and protecting one of the region’s most valuable economic and natural resources. SIRPDC staff and SWCA consultants identified specific community resources related to the outdoor recreation economy in the Shawnee National Forest that were at an outsized risk in the event of a wildfire. These resources included specific campgrounds, cabins, trails, signage, and roads throughout the national forest, all of which would be costly to replace in the event of a wildfire and are vital existing resources to the outdoor recreation economy.

Out of these discussions and deep dives into the data, the region learned that the existing fire districts that cover much of the rural counties were severely lacking in equipment and staff capacity to effectively respond to wildfire risks. As many of these local jurisdictions border federally protected land, a wildfire risk in communities is a wildfire risk to the federal land and to the region as a whole. Building these local capacities, including providing expanded equipment purchasing opportunities and training local fire districts volunteers in wildfire prevention and education, creates regional resiliency from the local level up. Identifying this equipment and training need has started conversations in the region about expanding collaboration and coordination between the U.S. Forestry Service and local fire districts.

Additionally, the process identified that stepping up fire safety education and public advertisements to tourists in the region can play a large role in ensuring that small-scale fires do not quickly escalate to a regional threat. With a high volume of outdoor recreation tourism, the risk of a stray campfire or a tipped-over grill is a seemingly minor, but real threat to the region. After this planning process, expanding these fire safety and wildfire risk education opportunities for visitors and tourists has become a fruitful collaboration opportunity for the U.S. Forest Service staff, SIRPDC staff, and local county and municipal partners through roadside billboards with fire safety and prevention tips as well as reading material, signage, and other highly visible advertisements provided at local municipal, county, and U.S. Forest Service offices.

CEDS and Hazard Mitigation Integration

SIRPDC staff learned through this process that the CEDS and local regional hazard mitigation planning can go hand-in-hand. Protecting natural assets like the Shawnee National Forest is vital to the economic success of the region and economic development planning should also include extensive analysis of the economic risks associated with certain region-specific likely hazards. In the SIRPDC region planners aimed to ask:  How would the local tourism economy react to shocks like a widespread outbreak of wildfires? Could it sustain itself without relying on the national forest lands?

In areas with certain natural economic resources and assets, hazard mitigation planning, economic resiliency planning, natural resource preservation and conservation, and land-use studies can all contribute to a region’s economic success. This plan coordination becomes even more vital as inland regions that have not traditionally experienced effects from climate change are now seeing more disruptive climate and weather patterns. Improving a region’s climate resilience is dependent on starting planning conversations before climate patterns are too disruptive and hazardous to local economies.

Now that these rural areas have their Community Wildfire Protection Plans finalized and in place, the real work must begin to implement the recommendations. While resource constraints have prevented large-scale implementation of some of the recommendations, SIRPDC staff are confident in the ability of the rural communities’ leaders to begin working collectively to pool resources and begin searching for outside grant funding for projects. SIRPDC has served in this leading role, unifying the local governments around a common issue area, cataloging assets and challenges, and facilitating conversations with the federal and state partners in the region to identify where resources can best be allocated. SIRPDC will continue to serve as the regional voice in representing its most rural communities and ensure that these previously underserved areas have the resources they need to contribute to regional fire safety and broader regional economic resilience. 

Key Takeaways

  • SIRPDC staff made the case for further regional collaboration and ‘outside-the-box’ economic development planning by displaying the economic value of the Shawnee National Forest for two of its rural member counties. EDDs have to take a broader approach to economic development planning that incorporates hazard mitigation and economic resilience to be truly responsive to the changing economic and social landscape in much of rural America.
  • SIRPDC staff were able to coordinate federal resources through a strong relationship with the local U.S. Forest Service office to help identify key weaknesses in rural communities related to rural fire department capacities. These identified needs can now be addressed through partnerships with federal, state, and local stakeholders. Stakeholder identification at the onset of a project or planning process can ensure that all interested parties have a seat at the table, including potential funding agencies or decision-makers.
  • Every EDD in the country has certain counties or communities in their region that are smaller, under resourced, and have fewer scalable economic development projects. This example around wildfire protection shows how even the smallest, rural communities in a region can contribute to larger regional goals like fire safety, economic resilience, and hazard mitigation. Many of these communities in the SIRPDC region are perfectly suited to collaborate and coordinate with neighboring communities to provide regional benefits for all.


This case study was written by Andrew Coker, NADO RF Regional Development Researcher


Contact Joe D'Antonio

Regional Development Researcher Andrew Coker joined the NADO team in March of 2023 after spending two and a half years as the Regional Economic Resiliency Coordinator at West Central Arkansas Planning and Development District. Andrew holds a bachelor’s degree from Hendrix College and a master’s degree from the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.

At NADO, Andrew conducts research on the newest economic and community development best practices from Economic Development Districts across the country. He helps produce easily digestible information on complex regional issues through case studies, tip sheets, and research reports. Andrew also hosts training and professional development opportunities including conference sessions and virtual webinars for member regional development organizations.

Andrew is one of our Missouri-based team members and enjoys reading and training for his next triathlon.

Jack Morgan came to the NADO team in 2022 after seven years with the National Association of Counties (NACo) as a Program and Senior Program Manager. Prior to NACo, Jack was a Policy Analyst for Friends of Southwest Virginia. Jack holds a bachelor’s in geography from Emory & Henry College and a master’s in geography from Appalachian State University.

As a NADO Senior Program Manager, Jack leads capacity-building and peer-learning work supporting energy communities in economic transition, regional resilience, and recreation economies. He also helps with the EDA-Austin training program Emerging Leaders.

Jack is certified by the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) and is a member of the American Planning Association (APA) in the Regional & Intergovernmental Planning division. He also serves on the Emory & Henry College Alumni Board.

Taking road trips, reading non-fiction, and indulging in top-notch barbecue and coffee round out Jack’s days. He loves maps, mountains, and of course, all things sports.

Karron Grant joined the NADO team in 2023 as Administrative Specialist and is the first face (or voice) you’ll see or hear when reaching out to NADO. As Administrative Specialist, Karron manages our database and coordinates NADO event operations. He ensures members’ needs are met, contact information stays current, and NADO’s office is running efficiently.

Karron came to NADO after four years in the classroom teaching at The New Century School and Old Mill Middle North where he received the Patriot of the Year award. He attended Towson University and the University of Maryland Global Campus and holds a bachelor’s in international studies and humanities.

Visiting art galleries and museums, playing basketball and bowling, and taking in movies and music are some of Karron’s interests and hobbies.

Deputy Executive Director Laurie Thompson has been with NADO for 25 years. Laurie helps keep the NADO and NADO Research Foundation wheels turning through management of the daily operations of the Research Foundation, securing financial resources and overseeing grants management, and helping execute NADO’s Annual Training Conference each year.

Laurie holds a bachelor’s in public affairs and government from Mount Vernon College and a master’s in health services administration from The George Washington University. Prior to NADO, Laurie spent time as a Field Specialist and an Eagle Staff Fund Director at First Nations Development Institute.

When she’s taking a rare reprieve from her NADO work, Laurie enjoys traveling domestically and internationally to visit friends and family.

Jamie McCormick joined the NADO team as a Policy Fellow first in 2019, then moved into her current role as Legislative Associate in 2021. As Legislative Associate, Jamie keeps NADO members apprised of any policy and regulatory issues and communicates NADO’s policy priorities to federal stakeholders and partner organizations. She is also the first stop for members with inquiries on policy issues. The planning and execution of NADO & DDAA’s annual Washington Conference is also managed by Jamie.

Jamie holds a dual bachelor’s in political science and international relations from The State University of New York College at Geneseo and a master’s in international development studies from The George Washington University. In addition to her roles at NADO, Jamie also worked as a Legislative Assistant for the Northeastern Retail Lumber Association.

Outside of her NADO work, Jamie is an active volunteer with the VOLO Kids Foundation and a fundraiser for YMCA youth programs. She is also NADO’s resident baker regularly providing treats for those in NADO’s D.C. office. Traveling, taking her pup on walks, and hiking in the northeast keep Jamie busy. 

Brett Schwartz began at NADO in 2012 as a Research Fellow after earning his J.D. from the University of Baltimore School of Law. The following year, he was promoted to Program Manager and has now been leading as an Associate Director since 2018. Brett is responsible for managing NADO’s Economic Development District Community of Practice (EDD CoP), as well as researching and monitoring the latest trends in regional economic development and resilience, including best practices for the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS). With more than a decade of experience on the NADO team, Brett is a dynamic relationship builder helping connect and build capacity among the national network of regional development organizations.

Brett also holds a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University and a master’s from Trinity College Dublin, as well as a certificate in mediation training. He’s a member of Catalyst Grantmakers of San Diego and Imperial Counties and was a participant in the 2021-22 Field Trips to the Future Cohort.

Brett is one of NADO’s West Coast team members residing in San Diego, CA where he enjoys spending time outdoors, attending concerts and festivals, and soaking up life as a parent of two young children.  

Communications Manager Katie Allison joined the team in 2023 to lead the strategic communication efforts of NADO. Katie creates and develops print and online materials, communicates NADO’s updates to members via weekly emails, and maintains content for and NADO’s social media channels. She also works with different departments to generate new ideas and strategies to effectively describe and promote the important work NADO is doing for EDDs and RDOs across the country.

An experienced nonprofit communications professional, Katie has worked for organizations in western North Carolina for nearly a decade. She holds a bachelor’s in communications from Wingate University where she was a four-year student athlete. Katie has also completed Vision Henderson County, a comprehensive leadership development program that promotes informed and committed civic volunteerism.

Katie stays busy trying to keep up with her two young sons whom she enjoys exploring the Blue Ridge Mountains with. Traveling to new and favorite places and cheering on the Atlanta Braves are some of her family’s favorite pastimes.

Senior Program Manager Ciara Ristig has been a member of the NADO team since 2021, and helps with NADO’s EDD Community of Practice, EDD staff capacity building and other grants on a range of subjects, including equity and solar energy. Before NADO, Ciara worked as a Planner for the County of Santa Barbara and an Assistant Project Manager for REM Consult. Ciara holds a bachelor’s in urban studies and French from Bryn Mawr and a master’s in urban studies from Ecole d’Urbanisme de Paris.

When she’s not traveling, you can find her outrigger paddling and serving on the board of the Blue Sky Center in New Cuyama, CA, near her home base of Santa Barbara.

Carrie Kissel has been a member of the NADO team since 2005 when she began as a Research Fellow. She later moved into the roles of Program Manager in 2006, and then Associate Director in 2011. Carrie holds a bachelor’s in anthropology from Ball State University and a master’s in public anthropology from American University. As Associate Director, Carrie oversees NADO’s work in rural transportation and rural wealth creation. She provides technical assistance and support to rural regions on transportation and economic development issues and develops training and peer exchange events on transportation issues and rural wealth creation as an economic development strategy.

Carrie is a member of the Transportation Research Board (TRB) and secretary of TRB’s Rural Transportation Issues Coordinating Council. She is also a member of the American Anthropological Association and the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology.

Reading, gardening, hiking, and kayaking are a few of Carrie’s hobbies, and she organizes and facilitates a DEI/social justice-focused book club in her community.

Melissa Levy has worked at NADO as a Regional Development Researcher since February 2023 and is the Principal Consultant at her own firm specializing in wealth-based economic development consulting. With a career spanning nearly 30 years, Melissa brings a breadth of knowledge to her role as a Regional Development Researcher. Melissa provides in-depth research, coaching, and training on regional economic resilience, rural wealth creation strategies, and economic development.

Melissa is a North American Food Systems Network trained AgriCluster Resilience and Expansion (ACRE) facilitator and a WealthWorks coach, facilitator, and trainer. In addition to her professional work, Melissa serves on the Vermont Urban and Community Forestry Council, on the board of the Hinesburg Community Resource Center, and on the Hinesburg Economic Development Committee.

A true outdoorswoman, Melissa enjoys cross country and downhill skiing, paddleboarding, hiking, biking, and kayaking, as well as yoga, and teaching Tai Chi.

Program Manager Krishna Kunapareddy began her role with NADO in February of 2023 after 14 years of service at Boonslick Regional Planning Commission in Missouri. Krishna manages NADO Research Foundation’s Planning and Environmental Linkages and Center for Environmental Excellence projects. In addition to researching and writing, Krishna also conducts virtual workshops on innovative tools and techniques related to transportation planning.

She holds an undergraduate degree from Andhra University and a master’s from JNT University in India, as well as a master’s in city and regional planning from the University of Texas at Arlington. Krishna is also a certified Smart Cities Academy Practitioner and holds the Location Advantage certificate from geographic information system software company ESRI.

In her spare time, Krishna volunteers with Mentors4College helping high schoolers better plan for their post-high school paths. She is also a dedicated advocate for documented H4 Dreamers.

Krystal DeLeon joined the NADO team in October of 2020 as Database & Grants Manger, but in January of 2022 transitioned to her current role as Operations Manager. Krystal keeps NADO running through behind the scenes work of invoicing, solving any database issues that may arise, producing membership reports, and much more. Her organizational skills and thorough knowledge help the NADO team operate more efficiently across all departments.

Prior to NADO, Krystal was the Conference Services Coordinator for State Services Organization. She is a Certified Meeting Professional (CMP), a licensed realtor, and holds a bachelor’s in psychology from Liberty University. When she’s not keeping NADO’s operations in order, Krystal enjoys running and rock climbing, and adventuring with her husband and son.

Senior Program Manager Bret Allphin joined NADO in April of 2022 bringing with him a wealth of knowledge after a 20-year career with Buckeye Hills Regional Council in Marietta, Ohio. In addition to his bachelor’s in political science and master’s in public affairs, Bret is licensed Geographical Information Systems Professional (GISP). He is NADO’s go-to team member for all things mapping while also supporting members with transportation and economic development technical assistance services.

An avid sports aficionado and former collegiate athlete, Bret enjoys cheering on his Cincinnati Reds, hitting the trails on his mountain bike, and improving his golf game whenever possible. Bret is an involved community member in Marietta dedicating much of his spare time to serving on local nonprofit boards.

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Joe McKinney serves as Executive Director of the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO). Headquartered in Washington DC, NADO provides advocacy, education, research, and training for the nation’s 500+ regional planning and development organizations.

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