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Ecotrust in the News

January 1, 1997
By Rebecca Bryant

Earth tones: Ecotrust is out to prove that economics and environmentalism can mix


At seems an unlikely spot for a bold experiment in rural economic development. The 680,000-acre watershed in the southwest corner of Washington State is an ecological cornucopia of tidal flats, estuaries, and marshlands; spruce, cedar, fir, and hemlock; cranberries, salmon, and oysters. But Pacific County, whose borders are almost coterminous with the watershed, is one of the region's most economically depressed. A large part of the county is taken up by the Shoalwater Bay Indian Reservation, one of the poorest reservations in the West. In 1990 the county's poverty rate was over 17 percent, and the unemployment rate among its 19,000 residents is four percent higher than the rest of the state and nearly double the rate in neighboring Oregon.

In fact, it was just those qualities that attracted Ecotrust, a five-year-old nonprofit conservation group in Portland, Oregon. Ecotrust's founder and president Spencer Beebe, who is known for his work on behalf of tropical rain forests, established the organization as a way of demonstrating at home what activists preached abroad. In addition to Willapa Bay, Ecotrust has begun five other programs within the temperate bioregion of coastal rain forests that stretch from Northern California to Alaska: the Columbia Pacific program in northwest Oregon; Clayoquot Sound and Kitlope Valley in British Columbia; and Sitka and Prince William Sound/Copper River in Alaska.

Ecotrust is dedicated to "conservation-based development"—by which it means both a reconciliation of economics and environment and a departure from these roots. Traditional models of rural development emphasize the importation of urban job generators—Wal-Marts, Mercedes plants, tourist destinations, and the like—into rural areas. Ecotrust takes a different approach. It recognizes that the demand for high-quality forest products, organically grown food, clean air, and unpolluted water is increasing at the same time that supply is decreasing. Conservation-based development assumes that it is possible to capitalize on this supply-demand gap, create wealth, and improve the quality of life by restoring natural ecological processes.

"We came to the conclusion that the environmental movement was headed in the wrong direction," says Arthur Dye, vice-president of Ecotrust. "We needed to build community capacity rather than regulations or legislation." Ecotrust also disdains what it calls the "museum science" approach to conservation, opting instead to build the capacity of local communities to steward their natural capital. Underlying its approach is the recognition that the community development goal of long-term economic prosperity is inextricably tied to the environmental goal of the conservation and restoration of ecosystems.

First steps

In 1991, Ecotrust hired an environmental mediator, Orville Tice of Seattle, to determine the interest of Willapa Bay residents in a conservation-based economic development effort. With the help of a $600,000 grant from the Minneapolis-based Northwest Area Foundation and a partnership commitment from the Nature Conservancy, Ecotrust recruited a diverse group of citizens to become the first board of directors of the Willapa Alliance. The 17-member board includes 13 local people, two representatives of the forest industry, and representatives of Ecotrust and the Nature Conservancy. In January 1994, the board hired Dan'l Markham as executive director. Today, Markham manages a staff of seven and an annual budget of $500,000.

Ecotrust used part of that Northwest Area Foundation grant to commission a series of technical reports on the salmon and forestry industries, and on the region's overall economy. The reports formed the scientific basis of a strategic plan that Ecotrust, repudiating models and maps, calls its compass. Its four cardinal points are: understanding through ecosystem research, monitoring, and education; conservation through protection, stewardship, and restoration; policy reform, using local experience and needs to inform regulation; and economic development that supports ecological businesses.

Pointing the way

Projects under way correspond to the four compass points.

First published in August 1995 to benchmark progress toward sustainability, Willapa Indicators is a biannual publication that reports key measures of community health. The Willapa Alliance used the report as the backdrop for task force meetings, a leadership summit, and a community roundtable. The project was "much more successful than we'd ever imagined," says Markham. "The indicators are not only a benchmark but also an important planning and policy document for the community at large."

The alliance has also published Tidewater Place, an illustrated book on the Willapa ecosystem, and has produced a CD-ROM, Understanding Willapa, that invites users to explore the area through sound, graphics, and maps. Information about the region has been codified in the Willapa GIS, a comprehensive geographic information system and database. The goal of all these projects is the same: to increase understanding.

Driving the conservation effort is the Willapa Fisheries Recovery Strategy, a 200 page document released last March. It involved 25 participants—federal and state agencies; the timber industry; agriculture, fishing, tribal, and conservation interests; and economic development councils. Markham says the effort is unique in being "stakeholder-driven, basinwide, science-based, and adaptive."

A good example of the alliance's approach to conservation is the Willapa River Watershed Restoration Partnership Program, which two years ago received a $423,000 grant from the state legislature to restore salmon habitat on the Willapa River. The partnership brought together the Weyerhaeuser Company, the Pacific Conservation District, local farmers, the Willapa Bay Water Resources Coordinating Council, and the Washington State Department of Natural Resources.

By June 1995, 20 miles of logging roads had been improved along the river, vastly reducing sedimentation and thus protecting salmon habitat. Weyerhaeuser piggybacked another $500,000 onto the original grant to improve other roads in the watershed. Now the Willapa Alliance is engaged in a similar, $300,000 road improvement effort along the Bear River.

Efforts in the policy reform area have focused on legislation to control spartina, an invasive weed that destroys clam and oyster habitat. Past efforts to control the weed have often proved harmful. In March 1995, the Willapa Alliance formed the Spartina Coordinating Action Group to educate the public and state legislators about the problem. One year later, the action group had achieved passage of a state law requiring permits for control activities.

Projects like stream restoration and spartina control are signs of success, says Jim Sayce, a former county water resources planner and now executive director of the Pacific Council of Governments. Sayce says he is pleased to see that the organizations involved in the Willapa Alliance have moved financial resources back into the resource service area. He worries, however, that growth could change things. The county's population is increasing at a rate of one to one-and-a-half percent annually. "The ramifications are that people who will be making decisions in the future don't even live here now," he says.

Development partner

To carry out its economic development strategy, Ecotrust sought a partner, the Shorebank Corporation of Chicago. The two groups set up ShoreTrust, the First Environmental Bancorporation, which is planned to open in the spring in the Pacific County town of Ilwaco.

The Shorebank Corporation has had more than 20 years of experience in neighborhood economic development in Chicago (see "Bank With a Heart," April 1993). The bank first tested the waters of rural development in the Arkansas Delta and Michigan's Upper Peninsula—with modest results.

Why then did it decide to continue to explore rural development in Willapa Bay and for the first time to try an environmental focus? "We had three reasons," says bank president Mary Houghton. "First, the partnership opportunity. It's the first time Shorebank has had a formal partner. Second, I liked the fact that Willapa Bay was tightly targeted. Last was the possibility of fine tuning for a third time to get a process going faster and sooner." An additional factor, Houghton says, was the project's strong emphasis on market development.

In Chicago, Shorebank created new wealth by capitalizing on housing appreciation. At Willapa Bay, says Houghton, the idea is to "support measurable increases in the amount of local small business activity in the belief that you can get a synergistic effect." She sites examples where networks or clusters of firms have succeeded in Northern Italy, Denmark, and Germany.

Initially targeted to Willapa, ShoreTrust will make loans primarily to businesses that do conservation-based work. Since it started in October 1994, the bank has attracted $7 million in "EcoDeposits" from foundations, individuals, and nonprofit groups throughout the country; these insured deposits link investors to environmentally conscious projects. By next April when its new facility opens, ShoreTrust expects to have $ 12 million in equity plus $15 million in EcoDeposits. Another institution on the for-profit side will be the ShoreTrust Land Corporation, a "green" real estate development company.

An affiliated nonprofit, the ShoreTrust Trading Group is already offering business development and marketing assistance to Willapa's entrepreneurs. STTG manages a $2.5 million revolving loan fund (financed largely by the Meyer Memorial Trust, the MacArthur and Northwest Area Foundations, and the Weyerhaeuser Company) that has approved over $1.5 million in loans for, among other things, an organic farming project and the redevelopment of a 20-acre brownfield site near the Columbia River.

According to managing director John Berdes, who has worked in community development since 1980, STTG plans to open satellite offices with local partners in communities throughout the bioregion.

So far, so good

Leslie Sauer, a principal of the Philadelphia-based ecological planning and design firm Andropogon Associates and a member of Ecotrust's advisory council, sees community involvement as Ecotrust's greatest contribution to date. "Restoration, conservation, and landscape management have to be science- and community-based," she says. "If a community understands the science, they're much more likely to make the right decisions than if they are regulated."

But Sauer also believes that Ecotrust needs to educate regulators. "Where roads go and what services are provided affect development. Ecotrust needs to influence the regulators who make those decisions," she says.

Donald Voth, professor of rural sociology at the University of Arkansas, has studied Shorebank's rural initiatives in Arkansas. He sees the Ecotrust-Shorebank effort as "courageous" and commends the organizations for their focus on local capacity building. He warns, though, that the Willapa Bay effort is not an easily replicable model.

The main obstacle to conservation-based development is shortsightedness, says Ecotrust's Walter Dye. "Short-term solutions don't get to the basic problem of why fish have declined. We're trying to build a longer-term effort—10 to 20 years—that will change the way government people look at these issues."

Stewart Brand, originator of The Whole Earth Catalog and a member of Ecotrust's advisory council, agrees. He says he learned from observing nature that the slowest moving things are often the most powerful. "The organization that takes the long view will succeed," he says. "Ecotrust is operating on the same time frame as forests—many generations. That's where the power is."

Rebecca Bryant is a writer and planning consultant in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

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