The nonprofit conservation group, Forterra, sees a change at the top and new directions for work that has so-far preserved 275,000 acres of open space and wild lands for the future.
Gene Duvernoy has stepped down from the helm of Forterra, a regional sustainability nonprofit corporation that is changing the definition of what it means to be a land trust.
Forterra long ago outgrew its original name, Cascade Land Conservancy, both literally and figuratively. Today, Forterra dedicates itself to using real-estate deals to preserve and sustain communities, both human and natural, all over Washington.
“Space to grow and move is what it all boils down to, a place to be,” said K. Wyking Garrett, president of the board of directors for Africatown Community Land Trust and the keynote speaker at Forterra’s annual breakfast last week, where more than 1,500 people contributed more than $1 million to support Forterra’s work.
Grown to 50 employees, Forterra has come a long way from the two-person office in the attic of his house where Duvernoy, 66, co-founded the land trust in 1989, building on the work of dedicated volunteers like Gerry Johnson, now at Pacific Law Group.
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Duvernoy leaves Forterra having helped the organization complete 450 transactions in 83 Washington communities, conserving more than 275,000 acres of land.
Duvernoy will remain CEO emeritus and serve as special adviser to Michelle Connor — Duvernoy’s first employee and the organization’s longtime executive vice president. Now president and CEO, Connor will lead what Duvernoy calls a restless organization, always pushing into new purposes and terrain.
From wetlands to farmlands, forests and open space crowded by development to urban communities at risk of being blown apart by the tech-prosperity bomb, Forterra has moved to help communities find preservation solutions.
Forterra today is one of the most innovative land trusts in the country, said Wendy Jackson, executive vice president of the Land Trust Alliance in Washington, D.C., a trade association of 1,000 land trusts across the country.
“Back when Gene started, it was all about how many acres can you conserve,” Jackson said.
But Duvernoy has helped expand the organization’s mission to something bigger. “They have been leaders at the table in what we call community conservation,” Jackson said. “Once again, they are changing the conversation nationally. It’s the philosophy that everyone should have a connection to the land.”
Maggie Walker, chairman of the board of Forterra’s Strong Communities Fund — created to help communities fight gentrification and displacement — agrees Forterra is redefining what it means to be a land trust.
“It’s about building community,” Walker said. “Not just buying property.”
Walker expects Forterra will keep expanding its vision to meet the region’s aspirations. “They are always looking, they don’t sit on their laurels, they don’t arrive.”
From working with community leaders to build and retain affordable housing in the Central District to helping the Somali community in Tukwila secure community-owned, affordable housing and mixed-use commercial space, Forterra has pushed into new missions. Meantime, it has continued its work with collaborators to preserve the natural areas that sustain the cities, most recently rescuing the scenic Lake Serene trail in Snohomish County from logging, and preserving vast tracts of forestland in rapidly growing Kitsap County.
“We go after the keystone real estate,” Duvernoy said, “Whether in the center of the city, or up in the mountains.”
Either way, the goal remains the same, Duvernoy said: Nurturing community and preserving what people love about living here as the region grows.
It’s been an effective tactic: “His vision to preserve the things that matter to us the most is going to benefit the region for many generations to come,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine.
To Doris Koo, a leader in affordable-housing initiatives, it only makes sense for environmentalists and affordable-housing advocates to join forces.
“In a community that is too expensive for its teachers, its health-care workers, its first-responders, you are not living in an ecosystem that is balanced,” she said. “You think about what makes a neighborhood complete, a quality neighborhood. What makes a healthy ecosystem. The concept is the same.”
Part of Duvernoy’s success has been reaching out to partners and listening widely.
“He found opportunity in places where others couldn’t, and Michelle has that same magic,” said Peter Orser, former chairman of Forterra’s board.
Duvernoy’s negotiating and people skills are legendary, and helped build Forterra into what Ron Sims, former King County Executive, called “a catalytic force.”
“Gene is the kind of person that sits down with you and says ‘we can do this,’ and after half an hour over a cup of coffee you are at yes. Then you say, ‘What just happened to me, why did I get to yes? And how do I explain that I got to yes?’ But then no one ever pushes back, because it was always a great idea.”
Duvernoy now will throw himself into a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day in 2020 intended to launch a better future for the region for the next 50 years. It’s an intentionally undefined, typically ambitious goal he calls “a bit of a moon shot.”
Just as typically, Duvernoy will draw on the strength of existing partnerships including with Forterra, to forge whole new alliances for new purposes.
Or as he puts it, “I’m walking through a door and I am not sure what is on the other side of the door, we will figure it out.
“You just throw yourself off the ledge, and then you scramble.”
But then, he’s been doing that all his life, with a remarkable track record of success.
“It is no small thing to save 275,000 acres,” said Denis Hayes, executive director of the Bullitt Foundation, a sustainability nonprofit based in Seattle. “That will be an enduring legacy that will be there forever.”