A Summer Well Spent

This spring, Blue Forest’s CEO Zach Knight was kind enough to take time out of his (very busy) schedule for a 180 Degrees Consulting guest speaker event. In learning about BF’s pioneering Forest Resilience Bond (FRB), I was quite literally mind-blown by the possibilities for financial innovation in the conservation field.

Blog and photo by: Emma Cockerell

My name is Emma Cockerell and I graduated this May from the University of Southern California with a B.S. in Economics and Mathematics. This spring, Blue Forest’s CEO Zach Knight was kind enough to take time out of his (very busy) schedule for a 180 Degrees Consulting guest speaker event. In learning about BF’s pioneering Forest Resilience Bond (FRB), I was quite literally mind-blown by the possibilities for financial innovation in the conservation field.

Forests have always amazed me. In elementary school, camping amongst oak trees lent perspective about the scale of my tiny-speck existence. Later, Girl Scout trips to Tahoe taught me about the interconnectedness of forest ecosystems. Visiting Yosemite in middle school only heightened my appreciation for California’s vast swaths of emerald foliage.

In high school, I learned more about the state’s increasingly destructive wildfires. I was devastated. Headlines written from afar gained immediacy when my Bay Area hometown’s blue skies burned a martian red.

Eager to make a difference, however minuscule, I have spent the summer helping Blue Forest research the need for seasonal workforce housing, which I’ve discovered is dreadfully lacking. The Yuba Project, BF’s first $4 million Forest Resilience Bond, led to the creation of the North Yuba Forest Partnership (NYFP). The collaborative comprises nine federal, state, tribal and nongovernmental partners that make restoration work a reality. But for many of these organizations, finding housing for restoration workers is an uphill battle.

I spoke to NYFP stakeholders about housing. I also spoke to conservation nonprofits across the Western seaboard facing the very same housing issues. Here’s what I learned.

The Challenge

The housing woes afflicting NYFP partners are all-too-familiar to seasonal workers strewn across rural Western U.S. restoration locales. But to understand these woes, it is important to note the difference between California’s oft-cited housing crisis, which usually refers to the lack of high-density, affordable housing in urban areas, and the crisis experienced by rural California, where housing stock is severely limited and investment almost nonexistent (as a partially remote Bay Arean, my brethren aren’tisn’t helping).

The urban/rural divide is one dimension of the housing shortage. But my interviews revealed another distinction: each NYFP stakeholder experiences similar – but distinct – housing needs. One NYFP partner, the U.S. Forest Service, employs seasonals through the Great Basin Institute and American Conservation Enterprises. Many of these seasonals are recent college graduates hoping to work temporarily in forestry. But other seasonals are local, long-time foresters with families and pets. Another key local partner, the South Yuba River Citizens League, employs young graduates seasonally through Americorps. Lastly, the National Forest Foundation contracts work out to a rolodex of local forestry companies, who primarily hire H2B visa holders. These immigrant workers will briefly work in the U.S. before returning home.

All of these seasonal workers experience a grave lack of infrastructure in the sparsely-populated towns that lie close to worksites. In tiny towns like Camptonville and Downieville, locals take up what little housing there is, and seasonal workers aren’t paid enough to rent there or in farther-flung cities like Grass Valley and Nevada City.

In sum, seasonal workforce housing is rarely available. What is available is simply not affordable. The few barracks and rentals available are frequently poor quality, built in the last century, and lacking stable internet.

Effects of the Housing Shortage

The seasonal worker housing shortage has already impacted NYFP partners in two chief ways. Firstly, NYFP partners report loss of talent. Organizations face difficulty recruiting and retaining talent because they do not have the budgets to provide housing. Nearby housing is simply too expensive for seasonals to pay for unaided. Sometimes, seasonals are brought on only to quit a few weeks into the job. Workers who are forced to camp face harsh living conditions that are increasingly exacerbated by wildfire smoke.

Secondly, NYFP partners report a loss of productivity. Many seasonals and contractors drive more than two hours each day to reach worksites, reducing productivity and increasing costs. Today’s high inflationary environment has only complicated the added costs of fuel to conservation budgets.

For each NYFP seasonal worker, there is a village of West Coast seasonal workers in need of housing. Hundreds of botanists, archeologists, watershed workers, and firefighters face the same set of housing constraints. When specialist crews are unable to find housing and perform crucial land surveying, thinning crews are in turn unable to do their jobs. The trickle-down effect of seasonal workers not having access to housing is immense – in the scale of thousands of burned forest acres.

The Solution

I had hoped that my interviews would lead me to the perfect solution to solve all housing woes – but I quickly realized how silly this was. Because there is no average seasonal worker, there is no “best” housing solution. What works for recent college graduates might not be desirable for local workers with families. Likewise, what works for the stationary GBI seasonal worker might not be what works best for the transitory immigrant crew member.

My interviewees’ diverse opinions reflected the need for nuance when thinking about housing solutions. Crew leaders and Forest Service employees often underscored the need for mobility – housing that can move where it is most needed, depending on work demands. For some, the “magic wand” housing solution was the acquisition of RV trailers and increased options for RV hookup locations. Deferred maintenance issues with Forest Service barracks – a result of ever-tightening budgets – dissuade many from fixing up existing buildings and engaging in new construction.

On the flip side, local non-profit leaders I spoke to focused more on permanence and sustainability. They highlight the importance of community engagement – taking stock of what promising existing structures, forming partnerships between entities struggling with the same housing issues, and creating a sense of community investment in seasonals, so that they are incentivized to stick around for the important conservation work.

Both viewpoints have merit. Mobile housing can be acquired relatively cheaply and quickly, providing short-term respite from a pain point that hurts conservation efforts each season. Long-term, though, conservation organizations (should pursue / would benefit greatly) from large-scale partnership in the housing arena. Likewise, state and county governments serious about combatting wildfire risk must realize that rural housing investment must be part and parcel of any serious conservation funding.

As I wrap up my internship, I am hopeful. Housing ideas abound, as do conservation professionals passionate about creating housing solutions. I am equally delighted that 180 Degrees Consulting, where my BF journey originated, will be picking up this project where I’ve left off. I am excited to see what housing solutions – whether infrastructural, community-based, or legislative – my former colleagues (and fellow Trojans) discover!