Spencer Beebe ’68 is helping to build the 21st century deep-green economy in the Pacific Northwest.
If rainforests are so important, why doesn’t anybody worry about the rainforest of the Pacific Northwest? That’s a question that plagued Spencer Beebe ’68 when he attended the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. The Americans, he says, were admonishing Brazilians to save their rainforests—and telling them how to do it.
“Only 10 percent of our temperate rainforest was left in the lower 48,” he says. “The Brazilians had 90 percent of theirs. We didn’t know the first thing about sustainable development—what it meant, what it looked like or what kinds of incentives or disincentives might apply.”
The year before, Beebe had founded Ecotrust, a nonprofit think tank, incubator and investor in Portland, Ore., that has collaborated on a dizzying array of groundbreaking innovations in support of a local economy based on environmental stewardship and respect for traditional peoples. Among them: Ecotrust joined with the Chicagobased ShoreBank to launch ShoreBank Pacific, the first bank in the country to include environmental stewardship in its lending practices. Ecotrust is helping fishermen acquire fishing quotas and, with the use of its award-winning web-based ocean mapping software, working with the state of California to create marine protected areas with minimum impact on fishing communities.
Ecotrust has coordinated farm-to-school programs in eight western states and is conducting the first global life-cycle analysis of a food product—salmon, the region’s icon. Unafraid of controversy, it has even helped native tribes repatriate land and establish ecological forestry in a joint venture with a company that environmentalists fought for years.
But while Beebe has been called a “venture conservationist,” Ecotrust is more than a constellation of projects and investments. Beebe is developing his own brand of natural capitalism—a blending of environmental, societal and economic interests. He talks about bioregion-based economies, and he’s dubbed the Pacific Northwest “Salmon Nation.” Incorporating a whole-systems (or holistic) approach, his goal is restorative.
Beebe’s vision and leadership have garnered him many accolades, including an honorary degree from Williams in 1996, the year his son Silas graduated from the College. A second-generation Eph (his father Robert graduated in 1934), Beebe was such a passionate falconer that he drove 3,000 miles from campus to acquire a falcon. (Housekeeping discovered it living in his dorm-room closet.)
After graduating with a major in economics, Beebe worked for the Peace Corps in Honduras— fishing, building dugout canoes and helping the local Garifuna culture develop artisan fisheries and cooperatives. He developed tremendous respect for the wisdom of indigenous peoples. The experience “showed me what it meant to survive from fishing and farming against the vagaries of weather and corruption and a culture of poverty,” he says. “That was a pretty dramatic change of perspective for me.”
His next stop was Costa Rica, where he, his future wife Jane Magavern and a friend built a ketch by hand. After sailing the Pacific for a year, Beebe earned a master’s in ecology at Yale Forestry School. He then went to work for The Nature Conservancy in the Northwest and eventually developed its international operations.
Over time, Beebe began to feel that the Conservancy’s actions conflicted with its stated aim of helping local people solve their own problems their own way—a way, he says, built on relationships and a deep interest in the social, ecological and economic concerns of the people. It’s “where I learned the lesson to bring social and economic concerns into the environmental equation,” he says. He and 54 staffers and five board members quit the Conservancy to start Conservation International (CI) in 1987. As CI’s first president, Beebe helped complete the first ever debt-for-nature swap, buying $650,000 of Bolivia’s government debt at a steep discount and then forgiving the loan. In exchange, the Bolivian government agreed to make investments in a million-acre biosphere reserve.
By that time, Beebe had moved back to Portland, where he is fourth generation. He began to wonder whether the lessons he had learned abroad could be applied to the rainforest at home. He raised money, asked a few friends to join Ecotrust’s board, hired a staff and went to work.
Beebe often alludes to the late urban activist and author Jane Jacobs, whom he initially attracted to Ecotrust’s board and tapped as a mentor. In her book The Nature of Economies, which Beebe calls “spectacularly important,” Jacobs argues that economic development will only be reliable if it’s more aligned with ecological development. “She said we need a natural model of development not because it’s a better model,” he says, “but because it’s the only model.”
Or, to put it another way: “The global economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment,” Beebe says, quoting former U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson, founder of Earth Day.
How does this apply to the real world? Take the state of wild salmon, an icon of nature’s abundance in the Northwest, where it once traded as currency. Despite investments totaling more than $1 billion, and a lot of good intentions, wild salmon have plummeted. According to Beebe, that’s because the Pacific Northwest’s salmon watershed, with both land and marine components, is governed by hundreds of jurisdictions—and jurisdictions within jurisdictions—the U.S., Canada, myriad states and counties, the Bureau of Land Management, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the Bonneville Power Administration. The list goes on and on.
“The way we’ve divided up the landscape makes it impossible to succeed,” Beebe says. “Everything is broken down to its component parts, and we inevitably end up dealing with symptoms, not causes. Ecosystem health declines, and the salmon disappear.”
Instead, Beebe says, economies should be based on the “crooked lines of bioregions rather than the straight lines of colonialism.”
And how do you know where the boundaries of the bioregion are? “Follow the fish,” Beebe says. “If the salmon are doing well, that means our agricultural, forestry and land use makes sense and that our decision making is profoundly right.”
Understanding the natural and social capital of the bioregion is the foundation upon which Ecotrust has based the rest of its work. It began by focusing on the Pacific Northwest, exploring its ecological characteristics and the importance of coastal temperate rainforests.
Ecotrust next surveyed existing coastal temperate rainforests around the world, including those in Chile, New Zealand, Scotland and Tasmania. Using satellite imagery and aerial photography, it zeroed in on British Columbia for a closer look, eventually mapping all 350 coastal watersheds more than 12,000 acres in size and creating a careful inventory, watershed by watershed.
It became clear that the Pacific Northwest’s temperate rainforest, which extends from San Francisco to Alaska, is the largest in the world. Because of extensive logging, however, only one intact watershed of more than 250,000 acres remains in the entire bioregion: the Kitlope in central British Columbia. “It is not just the region’s trees and other natural capital that have been decimated,” Beebe says. “The loss of language and the number of people that spoke those languages has mirrored the loss of forests and salmon.”
After familiarizing itself with the bioregion, Ecotrust worked in four communities in hopes of helping to build local capacity and social, ecological and economic well-being. Of the four communities, Vancouver Island’s Clayoquot Sound is perhaps the best example of a transition from an economy based on an industrial system to one that is increasingly conservation-based and locally controlled.
It was here that a war in the woods exploded in the early 1990s, after the forest products company MacMillan Bloedel (since acquired by Weyerhaeuser) announced plans to log Meares Island, which was sacred to the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations. The native tribes were just beginning to negotiate a territorial treaty with Canada and were granted an injunction by the British Columbia Supreme Court, which halted logging pending resolution of the land claim. Encouraged by the court’s ruling, environmentalists stepped up their efforts to ban industrial logging in the rest of the sound. Businesspeople from Victoria joined the fight, piling onto school buses to protest the impact of clearcutting on their tourism-based community.
By the end of “Clayoquot Summer” in 1993, the standoff between environmentalists and industrial loggers in the sound had gotten the world’s attention. More than 800 protesters were arrested—the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history.
As the First Nations became sidelined from the controversy they helped spark, Ecotrust quietly worked with them to develop GIS mapping capabilities and to set up research stations in the woods to gain a better understanding of the natural capital there. The organization helped different tribes develop a conservation economy, assisting with restoring clam beds and salmon runs and helping to get several big watersheds protected. And after the provincial government opened the door to joint management of natural resources, Ecotrust assisted the tribes with their restorative forestry work.
Ecotrust’s work in Clayoquot Sound is typical of its commitment to community authority—First Nations in this case, local fishermen and loggers in others. If this approach has caused consternation among environmentalists, Ecotrust’s strategy of promoting the unique competitive advantage of a bioregion is equally iconoclastic in the world of development economics—where countries are encouraged to produce commodities for export. Take the Pacific Northwest rainforest, which has a unique set of red cedars, redwood and spruce— trees with very particular characteristics. “They’ve cut it all down and turned it into Douglas fir plantations to produce 2x4s to compete with pine plantations in the South that will always be the lowest-cost producer,” Beebe says. “Why are we degrading our competitive advantage in this particular forest in order to compete with something where we’ll lose?”
It’s not just about preserving a place and culture, Beebe says. “The idea is what kinds of goods and services can you produce in this place that are different than in another place?
“Differentiation is the core fundamental process behind ecological and economic development,” he explains.
And so Ecotrust has supported fishermen in Prince William Sound in differentiating their Copper River salmon in the marketplace, a process that involves consumer education as well as branding. In Clayoquot Sound, Ecotrust has helped to link restorative forestry with green building.
Although it’s a nonprofit, Ecotrust has 13 subsidiaries—some for-profit, others nonprofit, partly due to Beebe’s desire to raise funds for his causes from whatever resources may exist. In 1995, for example, Ecotrust Canada was formed to raise money from the Canadian government, which American nonprofits are not able to do. (Beebe sits on its board, and its president sits on Ecotrust’s.)
Ecotrust’s structure allows the organization to maximize the impact of those funds. In the mid- 90s, for example, Beebe helped ShoreBank raise $7 million in capital to create ShoreBank Pacific (2008 assets: $200 million), which in turn raised $70 million in “eco-deposits” from individuals and institutional investors. This in turn could be leveraged to $50 million in initial loans. ShoreBank, Ecotrust and ShoreBank Pacific, along with their affiliates and partners in more than a dozen countries, continue to share a mission of building a 21st-century green economy.
Even so, one of Beebe’s early goals was to create an endowment so that Ecotrust (which now has 50 staff) could live off its income rather than rely exclusively on grants. So through Ecotrust Forest Management Inc., it manages 12,500 acres of timberland in Oregon and Washington. Ecotrust also leases space in its headquarters, the Jean Vollum Natural Capital Center, to organizations with shared values. (The 70,000-square-foot landmark in Portland was the first restoration of a historic building to obtain LEED Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.)
As a result, when the S&P 500 tanked last year, Ecotrust’s Natural Capital Fund, which incorporates the “triple bottom line” of people, planet and profit in all its investments, maintained its $34 million endowment—a true test of sustainability if ever there was one.