Why rural communities are struggling to get much-needed federal grants

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This story was originally published by High Country News and is reproduced here as part of the Climate office collaboration.

Bounded by the Bitterroot Mountains to the west and the Sapphire Mountains to the east, Montana’s Bitterroot Valley is home to renowned fly-fishing waterways and soaring vistas. Its forests, however, face the greatest risk of forest fire across the state, with cities like Florence, Victor and Darby all in the nation’s 98th percentile for risk. Yet homes continue to be built at a rapid pace, many of them in dangerous areas.

Theoretically, the Infrastructure Investment and Employment Acta A $1.2 trillion bill that funds improvements in transport, water, energy, broadband and climate resilience projects should be able to help. The legislation, signed into law by President Joe Biden in November 2021, understand money to make forests more fire resistant and defend communities at risk. But according to a recent analysis by Montana-based research group Headwaters Economics, more than half of western communities may not be able to access these funds.

The researchers looked at 10 factors that influenced how well equipped communities were to apply for a grant, and then used those factors to calculate each county and community’s “rural capability” score. For example, Missoula County, Montana, home to the state’s second-largest city and flagship college campus, scored 94 out of 100, while Carter County, Montana, where there is no county chief planning officer and where only 20 percent of adult residents have attended college, scored just 45, the lowest in the state.

In the West, Montana stands out: more than three-quarters of its communities have index scores below the national median. Weak state capacity illustrates the challenges faced by rural communities in the West, including reliance on boom and bust industries that create financial instability, and lack of grant writers, land use planners and emergency planners who would be helpful in applying for federal funds. “You go to a rural community, and usually the mayor is almost always part-time,” said Don Albrecht, director of the Western Rural Development Center at Utah State University. “They don’t have the resources or the experience or the expertise to even write grants to get the money in the first place.”

More than half of the communities in Wyoming, New Mexico and Idaho rank below the national median in the Headwaters Rural Capacity Index scoring system. Clark County, Idaho; Esmeralda County, Nevada; and Jackson County, Colorado, like Carter County, Montana, also received ability scores in the 1940s. At the same time, Headwaters also found that many rural communities considered to have low capacity also face the highest climate threats.

When overlaid with data on flood and wildfire risk, Headwaters’ analysis reveals areas with significant capacity barriers, often exacerbated by historical injustices, as well as high vulnerability to impacts of climate change. In Montana and elsewhere, many of these communities are on or near Native American reservations. In the town of Hays on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, for example, capacity is among the lowest 5% in the country, while fire and flood risk is higher than 90% of the country.

In theory, the $47 billion the infrastructure bill designated for climate resilience can help communities prepare for floods, fires, storms and droughts. But Headwaters’ analysis suggests areas with low capacity might not be submitting claims in the first place. “The purpose of this was to shed light on the key barriers that exist for communities trying to plan and finance climate adaptation projects,” said Patty Hernandez, executive director of Headwaters Economics. “For our team, it was really striking how widespread the problem is.”

Over the next few weeks, Team Biden is taking a tour across the country to discuss legislation ahead of midterm elections in November, with a particular focus on rural areas. According to For Mitch Landrieu, Biden’s infrastructure czar, officials will stop in a handful of western states, including Colorado, Alaska, Arizona, Washington and Nevada. Behind the scenes, federal agencies responsible for allocating infrastructure funding set grant guidelines and establish spending plans. “These decisions are being made right now that will impact the ability of rural communities to access the dollars that are coming in online,” Hernandez said.

Officials say access for rural communities is their top priority, stressing their « rural playbookwhich details money set aside for pressing rural issues such as high-speed internet access and upgrading electricity and sanitation systems. Last Wednesday, the Biden administration launched a pilot program called the Rural Partners Network, designed to address capacity issues by putting staff on the ground in rural communities to “provide local leaders with the expertise needed to navigate the federal programs,” according to a fact sheet from the USDA.

It’s critical that state and federal authorities work directly with communities to ensure money gets to where it’s needed most, Albrecht said. Otherwise, those with more resources will lap up everything. According to The Washington Post, municipalities from Florida to California are already hiring lobbyists to influence where infrastructure money goes.

There are also policies the Biden administration could adopt to give communities a fair chance to receive funds, Headwaters’ analysis suggests. The administration could eliminate the requirement for communities to match federal grant contributions, which can be difficult in sparsely populated areas with a limited tax base. Granting agencies could even directly identify high-need locations and award money to them without having to apply. Hernandez said new approaches are needed to give rural towns in Montana and the West a chance. “I can’t imagine a scenario,” she said, “where a single rubric for scoring proposals will ever work for rural communities.”


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