FOLLOW THE FISH! Spencer Beebe is helping to build the 21st century deep green economy in the Pacific Northwest. By Ellie Winninghoff

Jay Owen Sustainability News, Nature/Biomimicry



Spencer Beebe is helping to build the 21st century deep green economy in the Pacific Northwest.


By Ellie Winninghoff


If rainforests are so important, why doesn’t anybody worry about the rainforest of the Pacific Northwest? That’s a question that plagued Spencer Beebe when he attended the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. The Americans, he says, were admonishing others to save their rainforests—and telling them how to do it.

“Only 10 percent of the rainforest was left in the lower 48,” he says.  “The Brazilians had 90% of theirs. We didn’t know the first thing about sustainable development–what it meant, what it looked like, or what kinds of incentives or disincentives might apply.”

The year before, Beebe had founded Ecotrust, a nonprofit sustainability think tank, incubator, and investor in Portland, Oregon, that has collaborated on a dizzying array of groundbreaking innovations in support of a local economy based on environmental stewardship and respect for traditional peoples.  Among them:  Ecotrust joined the Chicago-based Shorebank to launch ShoreBank Pacific (now OnePacificCoast Bank), the first bank in the country to include environmental stewardship in its lending practices. It’s helping the state of California to create marine protected areas with minimum impact of fishing communities, with the use of its award-winning OceanMaps tool. It’s conducting the first worldwide lifecycle analysis of a food product (salmon, of course), coordinating farm-to-school programs in eight western states, and helping local fishermen acquire fishing quotas. Unafraid of controversy, it even helped native tribes repatriate land and establish conservation-based forestry in a joint venture with a company that environmentalists fought for year.

But while Beebe has been called a “venture conservationist,” Ecotrust is more than a constellation of projects and investments.  Beebe is developing his own brand of natural capitalism—a blending of environmental, societal and economic interests. He talks about bioregion-based economies, and he’s dubbed the Pacific Northwest “Salmon Nation.”  Incorporating a whole-systems (or holistic) approach, his goal is restorative.

“I didn’t start Ecotrust to save the Pacific rainforest,” he says. “I started Ecotrust to develop the rainforest in a different way.”

Debt for Nature

After graduating from Williams with a major in economics, Beebe worked for the Peace Corps in Honduras.  He fished, built canoes and helped the local Garifuna culture  (“an amazing, surprisingly happy, fun, productive people that did a lot of dancing and singing”) develop artisan fisheries and start fishing co-ops. It is here that he developed a huge respect for the wisdom of indigenous peoples. The experience “showed me what it meant to survive from fishing and farming against the vagaries of weather and corruption and a culture of poverty,” he says. “That was a pretty dramatic change of perspective for me.”

Next stop: Costa Rica, where he, future wife Jane Magavern and another friend built a ketch by hand. After sailing the Pacific for a year, Beebe studied ecosystems at Yale Forestry School, where he earned a Masters. He then worked for the Nature Conservancy in the Northwest and all over Latin America, and eventually developed its international operations.

Over time, Beebe began to feel that the Conservancy’s actions conflicted with its stated aim of helping local people solve their own problems their own way—a way, he says, built on relationships and a deep interest in the social, ecological and economic concerns of the people.  It’s “where I learned the lesson to bring the social and economic concerns into the environmental equation,” he says.

The upshot:  he and 54 staffers and five board members quit the Conservancy to start Conservation International (CI) in l987.  As CI’s first president, Beebe helped complete the first ever debt-for-nature swap, buying $650,000 of Bolivia’s government debt at a steep discount of $100,000 in the bond market and then forgiving the loan. In exchange, the Bolivian government agreed to make investments in a million acre biosphere reserve.

By that time, Beebe had moved back to Portland, where he is fourth generation. He began to wonder whether the lessons he had learned abroad could be applied to the rainforest at home.  He raised money, asked a few friends to join Ecotrust’s board, hired a staff of two and went to work.


Follow the Fish

Beebe often alludes to the late urban activist and author Jane Jacobs, whom he initially attracted to Ecotrust’s board and tapped as a mentor. In her book The Nature of Economies, which Beebe calls “spectacularly important,” Jacobs argues that economic development will only be reliable if it’s more aligned with ecological development. “She says we need a natural model of development not because it’s a better model,” he says, “but because it’s the only model.”

Or, to put it another way:

“The global economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment,” he says, quoting U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson, founder of Earth Day.

 How does this apply to the real world? Economics should be based on the “crooked lines of bioregions rather than the straight lines of colonialism,” Beebe argues. The reason is simple: Political boundaries don’t work.

Case in point: the state of wild salmon, a traditional icon of nature’s abundance—it was even traded as currency– in the Northwest.   Despite investments totaling over $1 billion, and a lot of good intentions, the population of wild salmon has plummeted.

According to Beebe, that’s because the Pacific Northwest’s salmon watershed, which has both land and marine components, is governed by literally hundreds of jurisdictions and jurisdictions within jurisdictions–the U.S., Canada, myriad states and counties, the Bureau of Land Management, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the Bonneville Power Administration. The list goes on and on and on.

 “The way we’ve divided up the landscape makes it impossible to succeed,” Beebe says. “Everything is broken down to its component parts, and we inevitably end up dealing with symptoms, not causes. Ecosystem health declines, and the salmon disappear.”

How do you know where the boundaries of the bioregion are?  “Follow the fish,” he says. “If the salmon are doing well, that means our agricultural, forestry and land use makes sense, and that our decision-making is profoundly right.”


Bioregion-based Economics

Understanding the natural capital and social capital of the bioregion is the foundation upon which Ecotrust has based the rest of its work. It began by focusing on the Pacific Northwest, exploring its ecological characteristics and the importance of coastal temperate rainforests.

Ecotrust next surveyed existing coastal temperature rainforests around the world, including those in Chile, New Zealand, Scotland and Tasmania. Using satellite imagery and aerial photography, it zeroed in on British Columbia for a closer look, eventually mapping all 350 coastal watersheds more than 12,000 acres in size and creating a careful inventory, watershed by watershed.

It became clear that the Pacific Northwest’s temperate rainforest, which extends from San Francisco to Alaska, is the largest in the world. Because of extensive logging, however, only one intact watershed of more than 250,000 acres remains in the entire bioregion: the Kitlope, in central British Columbia. “It is not just the region’s trees and other natural capital that have been decimated,” Beebe says. “The loss of language has mirrored the loss of forests and salmon.”

After familiarizing itself with the bioregion, Ecotrust worked in four communities in hopes of helping to build local capacity and social, ecological and economic wellbeing. Of the four communities, Vancouver Island’s Clayoquot Sound is perhaps the best example of a transition from an economy based on an industrial system to one that is increasingly conservation-based and locally controlled.

It was here, in fact, that a war in the woods exploded in the early 80s, after the forest products company MacMillan Bloedel  (since acquired by Weyerhaeuser) announced plans to log Meares Island, which was sacred to the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations. The native tribes were just beginning to negotiate a territorial treaty with Canada and were granted an injunction by the British Columbia Supreme Court, which halted logging pending resolution of the land claim. Encouraged by the court’s ruling, environmentalists stepped up their efforts to ban industrial logging in the rest of the sound. Businesspeople from Victoria joined the fight, piling onto school buses to protest the impact of clear-cutting on their tourism-based community.

By the end of “Clayaquot Summer” in l993, when the Sound became known as the epicenter in the standoff between environmentalists and industrial logging companies, 800 Canadians had been arrested for civil disobedience–the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history.

 As the First Nations became sidelined from the controversy they helped spark, Ecotrust quietly helped them to develop GIS mapping capabilities and to set up research stations in the woods to gain a better understanding of the natural capital there. The organization helped different tribes develop a conservation economy, assisting with restoring clam beds and salmon runs and helping to get several big watersheds protected. And after the provincial government opened the door to joint management of natural resources, Ecotrust assisted the tribes with their restorative forestry work.

Ecotrust’s work in Clayaquot Sound is typical of its commitment to community authority—First Nations in this case, local fishermen and loggers in others.  But if this has caused consternation among environmentalists, Ecotrust’s strategy of promoting the unique competitive advantage of a bioregion is equally iconoclastic in the world of development economics—where countries are encouraged to produce commodities for export.

Take the Pacific Northwest rainforest, which has a unique set of red cedars, redwood, and spruce—trees with very particular characteristics.

“They’ve cut it all down and turned it into Douglas fir plantations to produce 2×4’s to compete with pine plantations of the south that will always be the lowest cost producer of that,” Beebe says. “Why are we destroying our forests –the basic competitive advantage of this forest—in order to compete with something where we’ll lose?”

It’s not just about preserving a place and culture, he says. “The idea is what kinds of goods and services can you produce in this place that are different than in other places?

“Differentiation is the core fundamental process behind ecological and economic development,” he explains.

And so Ecotrust has supported fishermen in Prince William Sound in differentiating their Copper River salmon in the marketplace, a process that involves consumer education as well as branding. In Clayoquot Sound, Ecostrust has helped to link restorative forestry with green building.

Although it’s a nonprofit, Ecotrust has 13 subsidiaries—some for-profit, others nonprofit. This hybrid structure is partly due to Beebe’s desire to raise funds for his causes from whatever resources may exist. In l995, for example, Ecotrust Canada was formed so it could raise money from the Canadian government, which American nonprofits are not permitted to do. (Beebe sits its board, and its president sits on Ecotrust’s.)

But Ecotrust’s structure is also a way to leverage those funds and maximize the impact of those funds.  In the mid-90s, Beebe originally helped Shorebank to raise  $7 million in capital to create Shorebank Pacific (OnePacific Coast Bank), which in turn allowed the bank to raise $70 million in deposits (“eco-deposits,” as it calls them) from individuals and institutional investors. This, in turn, could be leveraged to $50 million in initial loans.

Even so, one of Beebe’s early goals was to create an endowment so Ecotrust (which now has 50 staff) could live off its income rather than rely on receiving grants. Through Ecotrust Forest Management, Inc., it manages 14,500 acres of timberland in northern California, Oregon and Washington.   The Jean Vollum Natural Capital Center, now a 70,000 square foot landmark in Portland, was the first restoration of an historic building to obtain the highest certification from the US Green Building Council for energy and environmental design. (Among other things, it has a 5000 square foot green roof.)  In 2008, when the S&P 500 tanked, Ecotrust’s Natural Capital Fund, which incorporates the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit in all its investments, maintained its $37 million endowment—a true test of sustainability if ever there was one.


© Ellie Winninghoff


(A version of this article appeared in the Williams Alumni Review.)


A former investment banker, Ellie Winninghoff is a writer and consultant specializing in impact investing. More of her writing about impact investing is linked at her blog,, and she can be reached at: ellie.winninghoff (at) gmail (dot) com.