J1, from the J-Pod of Puget Sound orcas, breaches off the coast of Maury Island on Sept. 25, 1994. The orca, known as Ruffles, was the oldest known male orca in the world. He died in 2011.
Photo by Ray Pfortner

Better than this

A Letter from Forterra
By Michelle Connor

The orca mother Tahlequah carried her dead calf for 17 days. People around the world were transfixed. Together, we ached with empathy. My sadness blends into frustration and guilt because the loss of this orca calf has a broader meaning. We are failing a crucial litmus test for the health of our Pacific Northwest.

Are we resigned to accept a future without orcas? I’m not. Not for the loss of these beautiful, intelligent creatures. And not for what it would mean for the future of our larger ecosystem—from which, it is useful to remember, humans are not excluded.

Forterra publishes Ampersand magazine to tell unflinching stories about the challenges we’re facing, and also to share stories of hope and action.

In these pages, you’ll learn about Hamilton, a small town in the Skagit Valley that wants to end a cycle of flooding and open up critical habitat for the Salish Sea’s most abundant Chinook run—one small step in creating an ecosystem that feeds our orcas and sustains our communities. You’ll see how Chris Jordan’s use of art and activism is creating a safe public space for his Tacoma community to flourish. You’ll discover a community of female East African entrepreneurs in South King County grappling with the displacement of their businesses and the impact on their economic futures—women Forterra is working with through a project called Wadajir, which aspires to create an anchor for enterprise and family-sized housing. And you’ll find a collection of stories about other passionate, persevering women leading projects to protect lands, wildlife and community all over the state.

Are we resigned to accept a future without orcas? I’m not.


The environmental and social issues we face grow more acute every day. There is no time to waste. Daunting as our challenges may be, they are more than matched by the strengths, assets and collective creativity of people and communities.

For 17 days, Tahlequah held up her dead calf as a mirror to us all. It was painful to consider because it showed we aren’t doing enough. Today, I continue to reflect on the question of how Forterra can take its work to the scale needed to ensure that we secure the land necessary to sustain a Pacific Northwest healthy enough to support resident orcas.

The positive projects highlighted in this issue of Ampersand are exciting. But as an organization, a region, a broad movement for sustainability, we must be dramatically more effective. So that the orca, the caribou, the kids of Hamilton, Tacoma and Tukwila—all of us—have a place to thrive.

Join us. First, in being awed and inspired. Then, in taking action together.

We can all do something to secure the future of this unparalleled place.

  • Michelle Connor, Forterra President & CEO

    Michelle Connor has worked to save keystone land for community and environmental well-being throughout her 25-year career at Forterra. She has now played a part in more than 400 transactions worth $500M and provided executive leadership in all phases of public policy, community engagement, negotiations, fundraising, and innovative finance (notably the Forterra Strong Communities Fund). Highlights of her leadership include successful completion of the 4,000-acre Kitsap Forest and Bay Campaign, saving the Wayne Golf Course in Bothell so that it can become a large public park, protecting waterfront on Maury Island from being developed as a gravel pit, restoring the culturally important Duwamish Hill Preserve, adding the scenic Moolak Lakes to the Mt. Si Natural Area, negotiating a community stake in coming redevelopment at 23rd and Union in Seattle’s Central District, and laying the groundwork for Wadajir, a micro-enterprise hub in Tukwila together with the Abu Bakr Mosque. Michelle is a third-generation Washingtonian, with an M.S. from the University of Washington’s College of Forest Resources and a B.A. from the Evergreen State College.