Seattle-based Forterra started as a small land trust -- a nonprofit organization that works to conserve land -- and grew into the biggest and most influential such group in the state. Initially called the Land Conservancy of Seattle and King County, it was born at a time of growing concern that the county's open spaces were threatened by development sprawl. Under the leadership of Gene Duvernoy (b. 1952), the Land Conservancy brought developers, local governments, and environmentalists together and brokered innovative deals to protect farmland, wetlands, and forests. By 2000 the group had moved beyond King County and changed its name to Cascade Land Conservancy. From that wider platform it developed 100-year conservation plans for the Cascade region and Olympic Peninsula, while continuing to arrange land-saving deals throughout western Washington. The organization adopted the name Forterra in 2011 to signal a broader view of conservation, one that included quality of life and cities as well as rural lands. When Duvernoy stepped down in 2018 after nearly 30 years heading the group, Forterra had been involved in 450 property transactions that conserved more than 275,000 acres, and was nationally recognized for redefining conservation.
Duvernoy was coming off a big victory in 1989 when he was approached by members of the newly formed Seattle-King County Land Trust. They were looking for a manager. He had just run a successful election campaign for a county levy providing $117.6 million to buy or protect open space, trails, and parks, and was heading the county's Office of Open Space. His credentials included environmental-engineering and law degrees, and the launching of the county's Farmland Preservation Program. Duvernoy joined forces with Seattle-King County Land Trust, which in 1991 became the Land Conservancy of Seattle and King County with him as its leader and the Land Trust's Gerry Johnson, Carol James, and Frank Pritchard as co-founders.
The Land Conservancy quickly was involved in deals big and small around King County. Among them were acquiring 300 acres of waterfront property on Maury Island to transform a former gravel pit into a marine park, and preserving 640 acres of second-growth forest on the Sammamish Plateau. The Land Conservancy and county also were able to buy 116 acres of wetlands between a housing development and a golf course on the plateau, later naming the preserve for environmentalist Hazel Wolf (1898-2000), and adding an adjacent 58 acres along Beaver Lake.
"Across the state right now, among communities, there's a real sense of urgency that they need to conserve open space now. I like the challenge of preserving these gems now before they're lost forever," Duvernoy said in 1997 ("Land Conservancy Sets Aside ..."). By then the Land Conservancy had played a role in protecting nearly 2,000 acres in the county and had about 1,000 members who helped fund its activities.
Transactions typically were complicated and might be years in the making. Some that were initiated by the Land Conservancy of Seattle and King County were not completed until well after the group became the Cascade Land Conservancy in 2000. One particularly long process involved the East Lake Sammamish Trail. The Land Conservancy bought 11 miles of abandoned trackbed from the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway in 1997 and sold it to King County the following year. The idea was to link existing trails between Issaquah and Redmond, thereby creating a continuous, 45-mile paved path for hiking and cycling that included Seattle's Burke-Gilman Trail. The East Lake Sammamish portion was expected to open in 1999, but adjacent property owners strenuously opposed the plan. The ensuing legal battle lasted until 2005, but the long-sought East Lake Sammamish Trail finally opened in 2006.
Snoqualmie Forest and Falls
Much of the Cascade Land Conservancy's focus in the early 2000s was on the foothills of the Cascade Mountains east of King County's suburban development. Duvernoy was a key player in negotiating an agreement to buy a big chunk of the remaining open space in that area -- Weyerhaeuser's 100,000-acre Snoqualmie tree farm. The massive $185-million deal was part of a plan called the Snoqualmie Preservation Initiative that was intended to create a so-called "wall against sprawl" ("Huge Deal ..."), with a fifth of that land going to the conservancy as an ecological preserve and the rest continuing to operate as a tree farm instead of being developed.
A nearby situation covered a smaller area but was more complicated. It involved 3,500 acres of forest, a planned community of 2,000 homes, and one of King County's top scenic attractions, Snoqualmie Falls. Cascade Land Conservancy put together a deal in which Weyerhaeuser agreed not to develop 3,500 acres of forest, mostly along the Raging River south of Interstate 90, in exchange for being able to add to its Snoqualmie Ridge development on an accelerated schedule. A key part of the agreement was that Falls Crossing, a site sacred to the Snoqualmie Tribe, would be preserved. That 145-acre property facing the falls had been ticketed for development. Cascade Land Conservancy bought Falls Crossing for $13.3 million from developer Puget Western Incorporated, with Weyerhaeuser agreeing to pay much of the price.
The deal had its critics. Some environmentalists thought Duvernoy gave up too much by allowing Weyerhaeuser Real Estate to add 268 houses to Snoqualmie Ridge and clearing the way for the company to develop adjacent acreage. Defenders of the plan noted that Duvernoy had broken an impasse between Weyerhaeuser, which was eager to start on the second phase of its housing development, and the City of Snoqualmie, which wanted to protect the falls. Said Lynn Claudon, then director of land use for Weyerhaeuser Real Estate, "He was able to step back and look at all of the issues on the table and mix and match the pieces so everyone was able to see how they would benefit from a comprehensive deal" ("Negotiating for Nature ..."). Duvernoy also defended the agreement: "Conservation and homes are not anathema. This is one of those cutting-edge projects that change the way we do business" ("Lake Sammamish Rails-to-Trails ...").
Bringing developers, conservationists, and governments together, as he did with the Snoqualmie deal, was a Duvernoy hallmark. He looked for new elements he could bring into the discussion as a way to reach agreement. For example, adding the Raging River Valley to the Snoqualmie Falls/Snoqualmie Ridge discussions preserved more land and provided an undeveloped corridor connecting Tiger Mountain State Forest and the Rattlesnake Mountain Scenic Area. It also provided for continued logging. As Duvernoy put it, "I solved the problem by making it bigger" ("The Master Negotiator ..."). He called the Raging River Valley "the missing link. The big risk here was losing this to something other than forestry" ("Land Swap ..."). He also noted that it made more sense to tackle all three topics -- Snoqualmie Falls, Snoqualmie Ridge, and Raging River Valley -- at the same time, rather than trying to work out separate deals.
Duvernoy became known as a conservationist who would support growth -- "Conservation only makes sense if people have jobs and housing," he said ("The Master Negotiator ...") -- so developers were inclined to hear him out, realizing his connect-the-dots approach often led to a positive outcome for all involved. He aimed to increase density in already developed areas in exchange for protecting open spaces. In his view, a working forest -- i.e. one that allowed logging -- was better than no forest. As he explained in 2004 when discussing a long-range plan for the Cascade foothills, "the model is to bring business practices to forest conservation. The land is kept in production, but also kept from development" ("600,000 Acres to Hold ..."). Governments tend to favor that approach, because it conserves open space without costing taxpayer dollars.
In a 2011 interview, Duvernoy outlined a recent transaction that illustrated his style of deal-making. It involved Orton Junction, a 182-acre planned development near Sumner in Pierce County, much of it on farmland.
"There was a lot of controversy around it ... So we said, let's find a new way of doing it. So we structured an agreement that as the developer develops that landscape, the City of Sumner was going to decrease the size of their city boundaries to compensate for that increase. Moreover, for every acre of land that developer develops, they'll permanently preserve five acres of other farmland (in a designated valley in Pierce County near that site). Finally, as the developer develops that site, it's a walkable, compacted community and is also required to have farmer market outlets. So, a local market for increased economy -- the point being to align economic, environmental and city interests so that everyone gets what they need rather than spend all this time fighting" ("Questions for: Gene Duvernoy ...").
After several years of successful land transactions in King County, Cascade Land Conservancy widened its reach. In early 2004 it was part of a three-county agreement to try to protect 600,000 acres of private forest from development. Called the Cascade Foothills Initiative, the deal was signed by the leaders of King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties, along with Doug Sutherland, the state's commissioner of public lands. "The idea is as big as it gets," said a Seattle Times story announcing the initiative, adding that the designated area was 12 times the size of Seattle and more than twice as big as Mount Rainier National Park ("Plan: Curb Growth ..."). All involved admitted the plan would take years to achieve, if ever, but its intent and grand scope were inspiring. "This is the big one," said King County Executive Ron Sims (b. 1948), adding "We will be creating a permanent wall between sprawl and greenery, a wall that will not come down in anyone's lifetime" ("600,000 Acres to Hold ...")
Next for Cascade Land Conservancy was an even bigger vision. Its Cascade Agenda, unveiled in May 2005, was a 100-year plan to protect nearly 1.3 million acres of working forests, farms, shorelines, estuaries, and other natural areas, and add more than 112,000 acres to parks in both undeveloped and urban areas. It extended from the Puget Sound area to Kittitas County east of the Cascades.
In developing the plan, Duvernoy and others spent a year meeting with representatives from more than 40 government agencies and interest groups, including environmentalists and developers, as well as 3,500 individuals at public meetings. "There is a false choice between the environment and development," he said. "We can do both, and well, when landowners, environmentalists and developers agree on the basics -- that we need each other" ("Bigger Than Anything ...").
As envisioned, the plan would conserve 93 percent of the region's private working forests and 85 percent of its remaining agricultural land. It also would preserve 21,000 acres of forests that protect the headwaters of rivers, and 14,000 acres of shorelines and wetlands. Reflecting a broader view of conservation, the Cascade Agenda had as a goal to "[m]aintain our rural economies and way of life and enhance the vibrancy and livability of our cities and towns" ("The Cascade Agenda").
While making its big, long-term regional plan, Cascade Land Conservancy continued to conserve open space in smaller parcels. Much of that work involved the transfer of development rights or similar moves that would preserve open spaces, including family-owned farms and working forests. In 2007, for example, the state legislature appropriated $4 million for Cascade Land Conservancy. The group used about $1 million to help landowners, developers, and counties establish development-rights-transfer programs. It used the remaining $3 million to buy development rights in Snohomish, Pierce, and Kitsap counties.
In 2011 Cascade Land Conservancy announced another big plan, this time for the Olympic Peninsula. Over the long term, the Olympic Agenda sought to conserve nearly 1.3 million acres, but its first goal was to boost the peninsula's economy -- encouraging diversification and job growth that wouldn't harm workers or the environment. Stressing that point, Forterra explained, " For the Olympic Peninsula it may come down to as simple a statement as this: If we want healthy, robust communities then we have to build a new economy" ("The Olympic Agenda"). The plan's second goal was to create sustainable rural communities. It called for "the evolution of the New Northwest Town, scaled to the region, where you can still know your neighbor while taking advantage of the benefits of the nearby urban cores" and only then, after focusing on economy and community, did it list as a goal to "conserve the benefits that natural and working lands around the peninsula provide" ("The Olympic Agenda").
Clearly, Cascade Land Conservancy had come a long way, in both geography and orientation. With his organization ranging from the Yakima River to the Pacific Coast and working not just with undeveloped land but also urban properties, Duvernoy said the name Cascade Land Conservancy felt constrictive. So, in November 2011, the group became Forterra -- meaning "for the earth." He elaborated on the name change:
"[I]f you step back and look at our economy and our region's environment ... we need to teach people how to live well in our cities and leave the rest of the region for recreation, timber flow, and food flow. Stop these same old battles of environmentalist vs. developers vs. timber operators and find a new way to work. We've been charting that for years: How do you find the way for all parties to work together? The name change is to strongly indicate that this is a point in time where we need to come together as a region in terms of our economics, in terms of our environment, in terms of our built communities" ("Questions for: Gene Duvernoy ...").
By then Forterra had 55 employees and five offices -- the main one in Seattle and others in Everett, Tacoma, Ellensburg, and on the Olympic Peninsula. Duvernoy said its balance sheet was about $35 million, and that its revenue was roughly one-third philanthropy and one-third government or private-sector sources, with the remaining third divided among risk capital, joint-development conservation projects, and other real-estate transactions.
The focus on populated areas included a project in which Forterra policy staffers met with policy makers in 19 cities, discussing how to make those cities more livable, and a Green Cities Program that restored about 4,000 acres of parks in five different cities. The group also took an extraordinary turn for a land conservancy -- it moved to protect endangered urban communities.
One was at the intersection of E Union Street and 23rd Avenue in Seattle's Central Area, a historically black neighborhood being transformed by gentrification. Lake Union Partners, a Seattle developer, bought the property and planned to build a six-story building with more than 400 apartments and retail space. Neighborhood advocates feared locals would be priced out. However, in a groundbreaking 2017 deal "that students of gentrification will dissect for years" ("These Improbable Partners ..."), the developer agreed to sell a fifth of the block to Forterra, which would serve as interim buyer for Africatown Community Land Trust, an African American-run nonprofit seeking community ownership in the neighborhood. The unusual arrangement provided retail space for local owners and 130 affordably priced apartments.
Another transaction centered on a minority neighborhood in Tukwila. With help from several Seattle venture capitalists, Forterra in January 2018 paid $4.5 million for an old motel in the heart of the region's Somali immigrant community. The idea was to use the building to create the Wadajir International Market for local vendors and eventually help the community buy the land and build a large residential and commercial property on the site.
While forging such innovative agreements, Forterra continued to make more traditional land-conservation deals. In 2016 it purchased the 89-acre Wayne Golf Course in Bothell, one of the region's last large, private, undeveloped spaces, allowing it to be turned into a city park with about a mile of Sammamish River bank. And in 2017 Forterra completed the acquisition of the final 1,500 acres of Port Gamble Forest on the Kitsap Peninsula.
Duvernoy Steps Down
At Forterra's annual fundraising breakfast on April 24, 2018, Duvernoy announced to the crowd of more than 1,500 that he was retiring and that longtime executive vice president Michelle Connor would be the new CEO and president. She was expected to steer a similar course, which would include, as committee chair Maggie Walker put it, "building community, not just buying property" ("Land-Trust Founder ...").
Board members, government leaders, and others took the occasion to praise what Duvernoy and Forterra had accomplished during their nearly three decades together. The numbers alone -- 450 transactions in 83 Washington communities, conserving more than 275,000 acres -- were impressive enough. But Wendy Jackson, executive vice president of the national Land Trust Alliance, said Duvernoy also deserved credit for changing the traditional meaning of conservation.
"Back when Gene started, it was all about how many acres can you conserve," Jackson said. "They have been leaders at the table in what we call community conservation. Once again they are changing the conversation nationally. It's the philosophy that everyone should have a connection to the land" ("Land-Trust Founder ...").