Program on successful activation of natural resource economies hosted in PA Wilds

The group explores uptown Kane, foregrounded by Kate Kennedy, Executive Director of the Kane Area Economic Development Center, and Gabriel Perkins, Executive Director of Inland Woods + Trails in Maine. Photo by Nikki Witt, The Conservation Fund.

Program on successful activation of natural resource economies hosted in PA Wilds

Regional entrepreneurial, community development and partnership initiatives highlighted

In mid-October, organizations from several states visited the Pennsylvania Wilds region to learn more about how rural communities can sustainably activate their natural resource economies as part of a program organized by The Conservation Fund.

Approximately 30 participants from New Hampshire, West Virginia, Georgia and other states were able to explore the region and learn about the PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship’s mission of integrating conservation and economic development in a way that strengthens and inspires communities in the Pennsylvania Wilds. 

The multi-day experiential learning program provided a chance for the participants to see various aspects of the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the Pennsylvania Wilds and how partners are coming together across industries to bolster the local economy tied to its natural resources and simultaneously attract investments.

Abbi Peters, COO of the PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship, chats with Charles McMillan, Board Member at Okefenokee Swamp Park, in the recently renovated PA Wilds Media Lab. Photo by Nikki Witt, The Conservation Fund.

“The PA Wilds Center was proud to host representatives from the communities participating in the 2023 ‘Activating the Natural Resource Economy (ANRE)’ Program, sponsored by The Conservation Fund. It was an honor to highlight successes of the Pennsylvania Wilds strategy and partnership efforts to develop and support a sustainable nature-based economy in a way that strengthens communities in the region,” said PA Wilds Center COO Abbi Peters. “Our team also greatly valued the chance to learn more about regions that are looking at similar mechanisms for economic growth, from the Okefenokee Swamp Park of Georgia to MonForest Towns in West Virginia to Northern New Hampshire.”

Workshop participants visited Kinzua Bridge State Park to see the unique partnership between the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) and the PA Wilds Conservation Shop, which stocks 90 percent of its products from local artisans and allows travelers to truly “take home a piece of the PA Wilds.” The group then toured the PA Wilds Media Lab, the Center’s first brick-and-mortar space on the second floor of a renovated older Main Street-style building in Kane that also acts as a creative hub for members of the Wilds Cooperative of Pennsylvania (WCO). Participants gathered in the energy-efficient Six&Kane building next door for breakout sessions and a chance to hear from Kate Kennedy, Executive Director of the Kane Area Development Center, and Kane Mayor Brandy Schimp about how they are engaging the community on new initiatives. They then took a walking tour of the town to see revitalization efforts firsthand, before heading out to dinner at Table 105.

Peer learning continues at the Elk Country Visitor Center, as the group learns about the Center’s operations from J. D. Walker, President of the Keystone Elk Country Alliance. Photo by Nikki Witt, The Conservation Fund.

The next day, participants visited the Elk Country Visitor Center in Benezette. After touring the facility that sees nearly half a million visitors every year, the group gathered for a discussion about how to break down silos and collaborate across different sectors, as well as how that kind of collaboration has been vital in the PA Wilds. PA Wilds Center’s COO Abbi Peters was joined in a panel by Deborah Pontzer of Grow Rural PA and Amy Shields of the Allegheny Hardwoods Utilization Group (AHUG) to discuss how supporting multiple industries is critical in establishing a sustainable and resilient nature-based economy. The group later heard more about rural housing and remote work, with a focus on the PA Wilds Center’s program known as The Wilds Are Working: A Remote Lifestyle Experience as well as West Virginia’s Ascend WV initiative. The day ended with a discussion on how to measure success and progress in rural development, followed by a walk and dinner in Saint Marys.

During the last day of the workshop, participants stayed in Saint Marys to have some final discussions about workforce development and quality of life in rural communities. A panel featuring public land managers offered additional information about how to encourage public-private partnerships and collaboration with public land officials. 

Ta Enos, Founder and CEO of the PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship, responds to a presentation on housing and tourism in Northern New Hampshire. Photo by Nikki Witt, The Conservation Fund.

“Peer to peer learning brings out details behind successful projects that can’t all be captured in case studies or best practices guides. The Conservation Fund sees tremendous value in connecting rural leaders directly to each other in a true community of practice,” said Lance Gloss, Program Manager for Activating the Natural Resource Economy. “Activating the natural resource economy means co-creating a future for rural America that builds wealth and health in balance with the needs of nature. Our work is in empowering rural communities to achieve this goal. Exchanging knowledge is a critical element of this Activation work. So is keeping the flame alive for leaders who have dedicated their lives to this. Encountering the visible success of the PA Wilds adds fuel to that fire, and we are deeply grateful to the PA Wilds Center and all of the leaders in the region who made this a success.”

This gathering was a watershed moment for a new platform for Activating the Natural Resource Economy (ANRE) dedicated to advancing economic development and natural resource conservation, made possible with generous funding from the Richard King Mellon Foundation.

“This program brought into focus how each rural region, regardless of where they are within their journey, is bringing together and strengthening the same components that are necessary to build locally rooted wealth in a sustainable way. These components include the local people and stakeholders, stewardship values related to each community’s unique natural and cultural assets, a recognizable place-based brand that can be leveraged by stakeholders, and authentic storytelling. Learning from and with each other creates opportunities for optimized workflow and greater community impact – and I’m excited to see how each region grows from here,” said Peters.



The Pennsylvania Wilds is a 13-county region that includes the counties of Cameron, Clarion, Clearfield, Clinton, Elk, Forest, Jefferson, Lycoming, McKean, Potter, Tioga, Warren, and northern Centre. The PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship, Inc., is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization whose mission is to integrate conservation and economic development in a way that inspires the communities of the Pennsylvania Wilds. The PA Wilds Center promotes the region and its 2+ million acres of public lands as a premier outdoor recreation destination as a way to diversify local economies, inspire stewardship, attract investment, retain population and improve quality of life. The PA Wilds Center’s core programs seek to help businesses leverage the PA Wilds brand and connect with new market opportunities, including: the Wilds Cooperative of PA, a network of more than 575 place-based businesses and organizations, and the PA Wilds Conservation Shop, a retail outlet primarily featuring products sourced from the WCO. For more information on the PA Wilds Center, visit To learn more about the WCO, visit Explore the PA Wilds at Find regionally made products at


Media Contact

Britt Madera | Communications Manager

PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship, Inc.

[email protected] | 570-948-1051

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