SEATTLE, 26-APRIL-2018 — Gene Duvernoy founded Forterra (formerly the Cascade Land Conservancy) in 1989 in the attic of his home, building on the work of dedicated volunteers like Gerry Johnson. In the nearly thirty years since, Gene’s bold leadership and entrepreneurial spirit have grown the organization into one of the country’s most innovative land trusts, securing keystone places in every landscape across Washington — urban, rural and wild. Today, at Forterra’s annual breakfast, Gene announced that he is retiring as president and taking on a new portfolio.
Landmark conservation projects during Gene’s era include the East Lake Sammamish Trail, a rails-to-trails conversion; the 320-acre Maury Island Marine Park and the 275-acre Maury Island Natural Area, forestalling two proposed gravel mines; the 50,000-acre Teanaway Community Forest, protecting headwaters of the Yakima Basin watershed; Two Sisters Return near Snoqualmie Falls, safeguarding sites sacred to the Snoqualmie Tribe; the yet-to-be-named Wayne-Sammamish regional park, saving 90 acres of a scenic former golf course in Bothell from conversion to luxury homes; Riverbend Farm near Arlington, reversing a subdivision and returning rich ag land to farming; and the coming Wadajir International Marketplace in Tukwila, helping Somali immigrant and refugee families build prosperity and stability in their adopted community.
On Gene’s watch, the organization has also championed innovative tools to secure and fortify our region’s keystone places, including Transfer of Development Rights, which helps rural areas stay rural, yet benefit from regional growth; Green City Partnerships, which get volunteers and neighbors out caring for urban green spaces; and Cross Laminated Timber, which fosters urban-rural synergy around a promising new sustainable wood product.
From its modest beginnings, Forterra has grown to 50 employees, completed 450 transactions in 83 Washington communities, conserved over 275,000 acres of Washington land, and garnered multiple awards and widespread local and national media attention, recently including the Wall Street Journal and the Atlantic Monthly’s CityLab.
Writing last August in Crosscut, the architect and one-time Seattle Times architecture critic, Mark Hinshaw, put Duvernoy in the company of Victor Steinbrueck, rescuer of Pike Place Market, and Jim Ellis, a leading force in creating Metro and cleaning up Lake Washington. “Gene Duvernoy is one of the successors to this great legacy of activism, with the irrepressible and effective organization, Forterra,” Hinshaw said.
Forterra board chair Terry Mutter adds, “Gene has a rare combination of traits: he’s someone both profoundly visionary and completely pragmatic. He has long seen the interconnections among parts of the region, and how decisions in every landscape affect not only natural systems, but economics, and our communities. He has worked tirelessly and effectively to ensure those decisions are wise, and that this place we live stays a place we love.”
“Gene’s strength is his relentless creativity,” observes Michelle Connor, Forterra longtime executive vice president—and now successor (see below). “If getting to a goal requires a new tool or new approach, Gene invents it. He has shown us that truly securing a piece of keystone land can mean buying it, sure. But it can also mean spinning off development rights or reaching a land use compromise. Or getting thousands of people out volunteering so that parks and other keystone places stay intact.”
“I met Gene during the pivotal land conservation battles of the late ’80s and early ’90s. For all these years he has been building relationships, innovating, strengthening Forterra and strengthening the ability of our growing region to preserve and restore the iconic places we all cherish,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine. “I know he will continue to contribute in his new role, but his lasting legacy is thoroughly secure.”
“What makes Forterra so distinctive,” affirms Marilyn Strickland, now the president and CEO of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and, before that, mayor of Tacoma, “is that its breadth of vision is matched by its depth of accomplishment. Gene Duvernoy and his team have succeeded in improving the quality of life throughout the state, from iconic rural places to urban centers by being gutsy, creative, and putting the relationship that people have with their environment at the center of their work.”
Gene Duvernoy leaves a legacy as prime architect of three game-changing initiatives at Forterra.
- The Cascade Agenda. Advanced in 2005 after wide community engagement, this bold 100-year vision lays out a practical plan to conserve 1.3 million acres of forest and farmland in Washington while fostering healthy growth in cities and towns. The Olympic Agenda (2011) is a similar plan to conserve working forests and natural areas while providing much-needed support to the economically depressed communities on the Olympic Peninsula.In 2008, The Cascade Agenda was one of nine global winners of the Sustainable Cities Award, co-sponsored by The Financial Times of London and the Urban Land Institute, which saluted its “sophisticated understanding of sustainability issues” and how it “is already changing behavior in the region.”
- Transfer of Development Rights. Forterra was a driving force in Washington State’s adoption of a program that fights sprawl by encouraging urban developers with aspirations to build higher to buy development rights off farmland and nearby forests — which then are permanently protected with conservation easements. The effect is to preserve the area’s fundamental character while giving rural communities a share in growing regional prosperity. To help cities accommodate these development rights, Forterra has championed policies to let cites gain a portion of the enlarged property tax base to help pay for urban infrastructure and public amenities.Since 2013, Seattle’s award-winning, Forterra-designed programs, have transferred 800 development rights off roughly 58,000 acres of conserved forests and farms to urban projects. Through these transactions, over the next twenty years the city will garner in excess of $27 million to support investment in areas accepting this increased growth.
- The Forterra Strong Communities Fund, launched in 2018, is a social impact investment vehicle dedicated to keeping our region inclusive and welcoming to all by securing properties for community space, affordable housing and small businesses. The Fund provides Forterra capacity to compete in a super-charged real-estate market. Tech investors, housing developers, foundations and associations have already invested $10.25M to fund Forterra’s first-round projects, which include efforts to renew African-American ownership of homes and businesses in Seattle’s historically-Black Central District (Seattle Times cover story) and create affordable homes and a small-business marketplace for the Somali community in Tukwila (Puget Sound Business Journal cover story).
“Challenging times call for thinkers who are also doers,” says Jim Greenfield, a longtime Forterra board member and chair. “That’s Gene. His belief in the interconnectedness of urban and rural environments, and of people and land, has defined his career. Because of the clarity of his vision and his capacity to bring people together, he has fundamentally reshaped how land conservation is viewed in this region. It will be exciting to see what Gene does with Earth Day Northwest 2020.”
LEADING EARTH DAY NW 2020. In a new role as Forterra’s CEO Emeritus and Senior Counsel, Gene Duvernoy will, in part, focus on championing Earth Day Northwest 2020. Capitalizing on the energy surrounding Earth Day’s fiftieth birthday, the goal is encouraging ambitious projects that reimagine Earth Day for a new time and a new generation, and advance the goal not only of a healthy environment, but also greater social equity and community cohesion. Gene was tapped for the role by Denis Hayes, president of The Bullitt Foundation (and national organizer of the first Earth Day in 1970). Gene will also serve as a special adviser to Michelle Connor, Forterra’s incoming CEO.
MICHELLE CONNOR BECOMES NEW FORTERRA PRESIDENT AND CEO. With Gene Duvernoy’s shift in position, the Forterra board has announced the appointment of Michelle Connor as President and CEO. Connor has worked at Forterra since 1994, most recently as Executive Vice President of Strategic Enterprises. “The vision, practical leadership, and integrity Michelle has brought to this organization has helped us play on a whole different level,” says Dan Nordstrom, Vice-Chair of the Board. “She has been integral to every major initiative here, most recently our community real estate work. We couldn’t be luckier to have her, and I’m excited to see where we go next.”