While stressing that he had no crystal ball, Richard Stadelman was able to provide attendees at the recent Wisconsin Rural Summit with a well-informed assessment of the challenges and opportunities facing rural communities and their residents in the coming decades.
"I'm a product of rural Wisconsin," Stadelman proudly stated. "My dad was a cheesemaker, and I would have been one too, but dad said I had to go to college."
Stadelman did indeed go to college, earning his law degree at the University of Wisconsin, and then serving on the staff of the Wisconsin Towns Association (WTA) since 1979, most of that time as its executive director.
He noted that WTA is a statewide, voluntary, non profit and non partisan association of 1,257 town and 20 village governments throughout Wisconsin. Its purposes are to support local control of government and to protect the interest of towns by providing legislative lobbying efforts, educational programs and legal information to its members.
His long experience with WTA gives Stadelman a unique perspective on the changes rural Wisconsin has seen over the last half of the 20th Century and in the early years of the 21st Century.
"Future changes are inevitable for rural Wisconsin," Statdeman emphasized. "The challenge for local communities will be responding to those changes in ways that allow them to continue to prosper."
Rural communities will continue to face shifts in the population. One study projects Wisconsin will see a 14 percent increase to 6.5 million people by 2040.
"These projected growth numbers do not bode well for rural Wisconsin," Stadelman related. "The latest census report shows that many rural counties have lost population, and others are expected to experience a decline in population over the next three decades."
Rural communities also will be challenged by an increasing elderly population. "Studies indicate the number of people over age 65 will increase from 777,000 to 1.5 million over the next three decades," Stadelman said. "in rural counties I believe this increase will occur at a greater rate than in urban counties, which adds to the challenge of how we provide health service and maintain a workforce."
Knowing that rural Wisconsin has both an aging and declining population, providing medical services in rural areas will be a significant challenge in the coming years. "Many major medical providers have attempted to meet this need with remote clinics, many of the acute care hospitals are great distances away from rural people.
Access to rural health care may well be determined by policies of the federal Health and Human Services Department, as it issues new directives under the Affordable Care Act, including reimbursement policies for rural hospitals.
Keeping properly trained EMTs and paramedics is also critical to health and safety in rural communities.
Traditionally rural communities have relied on volunteers but the requirements and time commitment for training has become a problem for young people in particular.
"However, there are many instances where volunteers who've been trained find they have a better opportunity in urban areas, and we're seeing a lot of turnover," Stadelman said. "Once time and money have been spent, it's important to keep these people in the rural communities."
Due to declining enrollment in recent years and the existing state aid formula, many rural schools have suffered from major cuts in funding.
In my opinion, if the state's economy continues to grow and produces budget surpluses, there is an opportunity to increase school funding and to make sure there's a fair share for rural schools.
I encourage all rural residents to be supportive of making sure that rural school funding issue is brought to the forefront with their legislators. I believe that rural communities that lose their schools, especially high schools, lose some of their community identity.
Roads, bridges and other transportation is necessary to a vibrant rural economy, according to Stadelman.
"While our state has a good system of major highways, there's a great need to maintain good roads in cities, villages and towns," he said. "Current revenues from the motor fuel tax and vehicle registrations are not keeping up with these needs."
He stressed that improved roads are necessary to handle the larger machinery used on today's larger farms. "A good highway system is just as important to forestry as it is to agriculture," Stadelman said. "Having a good local infrastructure is vital to move logs from the forest to the mills."
"The Wisconsin Motor Fuel Tax of 30.9 cents per gallon has not increased since 2006, and the federal gas tax, which is 18.4 cents per gallon has not been increased since 1992," Stadelman said. "This combined with more fuel-efficient vehicles means money in the transportation fund is not sufficient to meet current and future needs."
Stadelman reported that this fall voters will be asked to amend the state constitution to prohibit these transportation related revenues from being diverted to other state programs as occurred during the Doyle administration.
"I hope electors support this constitutional amendment because I think there will be more of a political will among legislators to look at raising the necessary revenue to meet our transportation needs," Stadelman said.
"The challenge for local communities is to prioritize improvements to their roads that provide the best transportation with limited dollars," he stressed.
Wisconsin's $61 billion agriculture industry is expected to continue to grow in the coming decades.
"The Walker administration has launched an initiative to grow our $29 billion dairy industry by increasing annual milk production to 30 billion pounds by 2020," Stadelman related. "The initiative provides grants and other assistance to Wisconsin dairy farmers of all sizes to help them plan for increased production."
However, the growth of large animal farms, has raised concerns about the impact of the additional manure on the environment. "In the last 10 years, the Wisconsin DNR has reported that 6.9 million gallons of liquid manure has spilled from tanker trucks, manure pits and digesters," Stadelman reported.
At the other end of the agriculture spectrum are a growing number of farms that produce vegetables, meat and other products that are sold at local farmers' markets. "That's a good phenomenon and something that will continue to grow and be beneficial to the local communities," Stadelman said.
Another huge change to Wisconsin's rural landscape, and a unique challenge for rural residents, is the expansion of industrial sand mining that has occurred over the past five years, according to Stadelman.
"Currently, we have over 120 operating industrial sand mines and processing plants in Wisconsin," he said. "There are also 30 or more additional sites that are applying for permits or have permits pending, and that means we have the potential for 150 of these sites operating within the next five years."
Stadelman also stated that the new mines, which are operating primarily to supply the petroleum industry with material to use in the hydraulic fracturing process that enables natural gas extraction from deep in the shale rock, tend to be much larger than traditional gravel and sand pits that produce materials for road building and other construction.
"Some of these sites cover more than 1,000 acres and close to 2,000 acres," said Stadelman. "Some have tractors and trailers that haul up to 100, 80-thousand-pound loads of sand every day."
While these mines may have improve the economy of certain areas, the neighbors have concerns about health hazards from silica dust and harm to water quality and quantity, "There's also concern about the impact of having an industry hauling 100 truckloads of sand and material on local roads every day," Stadelman said.
Whether dealing with environmental concerns coming from agriculture, industrial sand mining or elsewhere, Stadelman stressed the need for rural residents to be proactive.
"Communities need to address what they can to protect their residents and community interests," he emphasized. "Local control means having ordinances, regulations and processes in place that address the concerns of neighbors that might be beyond the state regulations.
"The state can set standard that regulate the air and water quality, but those state standards need to be the state-of-the-art and need to be reviewed on an ongoing basis as new science comes into play," Stadelman urged.
Solving the challenges of rural communities will require joining with other local municipalities to achieve a common goal, Stadelman suggested. "Towns, villages and neighboring communities will need to cooperate more in the coming years."