A group gathered at an irrigation efficiency project. (Photo courtesy of The Roundhouse Foundation)

Learning how to work together as a community in the face of changing climate, resources and economies has been the focus of Lake County Resources Initiative (LCRI) since its inception. The economy of Lake County, located in south-central Oregon, was long driven by agriculture and forestry. After a decline in lumber production and subsequent loss of jobs in the late 1990s, county leaders such as LCRI founder Jim Walls began to look for ways to create a more sustainable economy and future.

Walls created the nonprofit in 2002 to promote local workforce training and sustainable forest management. Today, its mission is to demonstrate an economic, ecological and sustainable approach to natural resource management, climate disruption solutions, youth and community education, and increased economic development in the pursuit of continual improvement of the quality of life for present and future generations.

One of LCRI’s first collaborations was with the Lakeview Stewardship Group, formed in 1998 to redefine land management goals in Lake County’s Fremont-Winema National Forest, incorporating ecological restoration and community values. 

“This is a role we still play today,” said Nick Johnson, executive director of LCRI. The area’s forest and land health–and more recently, ways to mitigate forest fire danger–are all approached on a restoration scale by the stewardship group that includes conservationists, timber workers, local government officials, and other civic leaders.

The other focus for Lake County Resources Initiative is its energy programs. LCRI provides information and resources on energy efficiency and renewable energy options to residents, businesses, and community organizations to strengthen the local economy and work toward a zero-emissions goal for the county. 

“Solar and geothermal are the two most readily available renewable resources right now,” said Johnson. While tapping into the county’s geothermal energy is mostly in the planning phase, LCRI has helped to implement utility-scale and rooftop solar projects throughout the county. With the help of local governments and businesses in the area, a variety of solar arrays aim to create community resilience in the face of increasing climate change. 

Johnson believes LCRI’s work to help Lake County move away from an extraction economy and into one that uses sustainable technologies and practices could be a model for other counties. Its role as an intermediary between land developers and the county facilitates the community’s ability to adapt to and mitigate climate change. 

The Roundhouse Foundation in Sisters first learned about LCRI after watching the 2020 documentary “Other Side of the Hill,” about how and why these collaborations in rural Oregon worked. Erin Borla, trustee and executive director of The Roundhouse Foundation, was so impressed with what LCRI and their partners had accomplished to innovatively support the economy of rural Lake County that her staff reached out to learn more.

“After getting to know Nick and the small-but-mighty LCRI team, it was clear that they are doing great things with a very small staff. Offering support to help leverage additional funding so they could hire an office administrator was what made sense to our team,” said Borla.

That support made a difference for LCRI. “Thanks to Roundhouse, we hired one new, full-time employee supporting energy programs and administrative work so we can now serve our constituency better,” said Johnson. “It’s another huge step forward, and we’re very thankful to them for that,” he said. 

Another way that LCRI acts to increase the county’s energy efficiency is as a community partner of Energy Trust of Oregon. Facilitating energy efficiency projects through Energy Trust helps both residential and commercial customers save money on upfront costs. 

Johnathan Van Roekel, the renewable energy coordinator for LCRI, said LCRI’s role with Energy Trust is in helping homeowners and small businesses navigate the industry to capture available funds for projects like weatherization, HVAC and solar energy arrays. 

“We help homeowners get their attics insulated for zero dollars,” said Van Roekel, whose position is made possible through the University of Oregon RARE (Resource Assistance for Rural Environments) AmeriCorps program. The RARE program aims to increase the capacity of rural communities to improve their economic, social and environmental conditions, through the assistance of trained graduate-level members who live and work in communities for 11 months. Van Roekel in his second 11-month term.

“The way RARE and LCRI have come into a partnership to host my position is through a USDA program known as Renewable Energy Development Assistance (REDA),” said Van Roekel. The REDA team, which consists of many statewide project partners such as Wy’East RC&D, Sustainable Northwest, Wallowa Resources, the Oregon Department of Energy, and Energy Trust of Oregon, enables LCRI to work with small businesses and agricultural producers on a statewide scale. 

Van Roekel said his greatest success during his time at LCRI has been helping in the effort to raise more than $400,000 in USDA REAP (Rural Energy for America Program) grants that have gone to help people with costs for implementing renewable energy projects statewide. “It is through the REDA effort that I have helped write requests for the REAP grant applications,” said Van Roekel. 

“When we are helping leverage money that needs to be spent in the community, we are helping to establish how this money is distributed statewide,” said Van Roekel. “I am inspired to think that we can make this more accessible for people.”

Annissa Anderson writes for The Roundhouse Foundation, a private, family foundation, based in Sisters, Oregon, since 2002. The foundation provides grant services to rural communities and tribal regions throughout Oregon and operates Pine Meadow Ranch Center for Arts and Agriculture in Sisters. 

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