Environmentalists have never been big fans of business. So five years ago, when environmental activist Spencer Beebe began encouraging commercial development in the delicate coastal ecosystem of Willapa Bay in southwestern Washington — to the point of lending a local logger money to harvest trees and helping him market his timber — he got curious looks from business leaders. He got downright nasty looks from fellow greens.
Beebe, 51, is founder and president of Ecotrust, an environmental group in Portland, Oregon that has pursued a series of blasphemous collaborations since its creation in 1991. In concert with some unlikely local partners, Ecotrust is encouraging forest conservation in Sitka, Alaska; restocking native sockeye salmon in Clayoquot Sound, British Columbia; supporting ecosystem research in Alaska's Prince William Sound. But Ecotrust is more than a collection of projects. It is a new model of green activism that Beebe calls "conservation-based development." The model goes beyond a grudging accommodation with business to consciously embrace the power of economic self-interest.
"Traditional environmental groups have been top-down and interventionist," says Beebe, seated in a cubicle in a refurbished flour mill in Portland's industrial district. "They've depended on government dictating the rules. We start in a different place: What are the needs of the people who live in that environment and how can we engage their self-interest in protecting it?"
Beebe, a fourth-generation Portlander with horn-rim glasses and unruly, sandy brown hair, doesn't look the part of environmental iconoclast. His cubicle is festooned with bird and nature photographs. His résumé includes a stint with the Peace Corps, training at Yale School of Forestry, and field work in Central American rain forests with The Nature Conservancy. He even has a famous explorer-naturalist for a great-great uncle.
Ecotrust's approach starts with a commitment to community authority. Greens often assume that local residents, left to their own devices, will undermine the environment. Ecotrust assumes that loggers, fishermen, landowners, and other locals are the only people with a vested self-interest in both environmental integrity and economic development. What's usually missing from the local scene is information: concrete evidence of how a region's environmental health is inseparable from its long-term economic health. People with the right data, Beebe says, usually make the right choices.
Case in point: some of the most vocal supporters of the Willapa Alliance, one of Ecotrust's protégé groups, have been the local oystermen, whose world-famous shellfish can tolerate little decline in water quality. "They've done a good job working with people, educating them," says local entrepreneur Dave Nisbet of the Nisbet Oyster Company. Ecotrust, Nisbet says, "wants to keep the water clean. And we're an industry that depends on clean water, so we have an automatic commonality."
Beebe also believes in open systems. Indeed, Ecotrust has a banker-like insistence on "seeing the numbers." When it starts a project, it gathers data from historical records, field surveys, even satellite imagery. (Beebe's organization is a leader in the use of digital mapping technology and geographic information systems.) It then works with local advocates to highlight the critical, but often hidden, linkages between the environment and the economy.
The final ingredient in every Ecotrust project is local leadership. Whenever it supports an initiative (Ecotrust now has nine major projects under way) it begins by identifying local people who share its ideas about how the community might mix ecology and economic development. "Finding local leadership early in a project is critical," Beebe says. "Too often, environmental groups create an enterprise and then go looking for entrepreneurs, which ultimately means pushing locals to accept an externally devised scheme."
Beebe believes that the combined power of decentralization, open systems, and local leadership creates the conditions for environmental preservation based on commercial innovation. Ecotrust's next job is to provide technical assistance. The group's marketing experts have helped green entrepreneurs capitalize on Willapa Bay's reputation for environmental quality to entice national distributors to carry their products.
Increasingly Ecotrust is putting its own money where its principles are. In collaboration with Chicago-based Shorebank Corporation, a financial institution famous for its focus on community development, Ecotrust has created mechanisms that funnel dollars from environmentally minded investors to green entrepreneurs. It's also raising $12 million to support a for-profit bank - ShoreTrust, the First Environmental Bancorporation — that will use green criteria in its lending decisions. It's even creating a real-estate development company whose projects will be environmentally friendly.
Ecotrust's approach still generates skepticism among some environmental groups for its pro-business logic. But the organization has developed a substantial following among community-based groups nationally and abroad. Activists are studying its projects and looking for lessons they can take home. Beebe is confident that what works in Willapa Bay or British Columbia can work in other parts of the world. But he doesn't want anyone to copy what his organization does; he merely wants its track record to speak for itself.
"If Ecotrust tries to be a model, it will fail," Beebe says. "But if Ecotrust tries to save the rain forest — and succeeds — then it will be a model. Success is the model."
Paul Roberts (email@example.com) is a Seattle-based writer. You can visit Ecotrust on the Web, http://www.ecotrust.org .
A version of this article appeared in the April/May 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.