Catlin Gabel Caller
By Nadine Fiedler
Anyone who spends even a few minutes with Spencer Beebe '64 comes to see, quite suddenly, that life is big, bigger than you thought. That the forests—the whole ecosystem, why not?—of the Pacific Northwest can be saved. That by connecting ideas, people, and money, you can indeed change the world, or at least your corner of it.
He's that electric, that dynamic. Smart, impatient. Driven. Spencer is an uncommon person, and his career and life are like none other's.
As founder and president of the groundbreaking organization Ecotrust, and as a driving force in years past in the Nature Conservancy and Conservation International, Spencer has acted as a catalyst to preserve millions of acres of land. Driven by what he calls his triple bottom line, Spencer's approach—a new one to some environmentalists—is to consider local economy and social equity as equal partners to the environment itself. That means that the people who live in a region, and their livelihoods, are as important to him as the forests. It means that local people are brought into Ecotust's conservation projects early, and their lives and knowledge are valued. Mostly, it means rethinking how we manage people's relationship with the environment, finding ways to keep generating income while preserving the health of the forests and the watersheds. Spencer and his Ecotrust crew have found that careful forestry work, using techniques that mirror what happens naturally, can actually yield greater returns—while preserving water, biodiversity, and jobs—than the destructive practices sometimes used by timber companies to extract the most money they can from the land.
"Short term, single issue solutions are ephemeral, tangential, and self defeating," says Spencer. He calls his conservation economy idea a "get rich slow" approach.
Spencer's life led him naturally toward his role as generator of new ideas and preserver of the ancient. "One foot forward all the way, one thing led to another," he says. His family—Beebes, Tuckers, Livingstones, and Biddles—have been in Portland since the 1880s and have been long involved with enjoying and preserving the natural world. His great grandfather, a botanist and geologist, bought Beacon Rock and donated it to Washington as one of the earliest state parks. Further back, Nicholas Biddle edited the first authorized version of the journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition, in 1814. So growing up as he did, immersed in a sense of place and philanthropy, Spencer's choice of a meaningful career was actually the easiest path.
"My father was a food broker; and I broker ideas, money, and people. I don't create the best ideas, but I know them when I see them," says Spencer, who has come to see that his work with Ecotrust's food and farms project brings him full circle to his father's work.
Spencer's awareness of the fragility of the environment was evident at Catlin Gabel. His deep interest in birds led him to climbing trees and cliffs to watch birds and draw and paint them. His art teacher at Hillside from 6th to 8th grade, Byron (BJ) Gardner, immersed Spencer in his consuming interest in falconry. The two of them went out and trapped falcons together, and Spencer spent his study time reading books on falconry and making trappings for the birds. On his birding trips Spencer's eyes were opened to the degradation of the environment, when he would discover a new highway or clearcut where he knew falcons had lived for over a hundred years. This wanton and unnecessary destruction of the birds' nesting sites shocked him and galvanized him to further action.
Spencer continued his education by studying economics at Williams College, after which he served for two years in the Peace Corps in Honduras. His time in Central America brought the human dimension of environment and economy close to home for him, as well as issues of race and equality. After his Peace Corps stint ended, Spencer married his wife, Jane, and they spent two years cruising the Pacific Islands in a Tahiti ketch they had built. He then packed off to the Yale School of Forestry, where he studied forest ecology.
He started his career with the Nature Conservancy, and the conservation deals he brokered at this time are among the most rewarding of his career. Spencer has always considered himself a nonconformist, enjoying the adventure of going 180 degrees from the pack—and his vivid and idiosyncratic ways of thinking often led to the preservation of valuable land that others thought was not worth the struggle. He cites the acquisition of Sycan Marsh, near Klamath Falls, a former ranch that is now a 30,000 acre Nature Conservancy preserve; to save it he had to work against the skepticism of his colleagues' views about owning an active cattle ranch. Another program he initiated was Silver Creek, Idaho, a stream restoration project that grew to 10,000 acres. "It's a wonderful example of how much restoration can happen if we let nature have her head. This was in farm country, and when the cows were removed, nature healed itself," Spencer says.
After leading the Nature Conservancy's international program, Spencer left to form the highly successful Conservation International. But he came to see that the region he really cared about, the one he now call's Salmon Nation, was calling him home, with a threatened coastal temperate rain forest that demanded immediate attention. He founded Ecotrust in 1991 to attend to the human and natural landscapes of the coastal Pacific Northwest.
As head of Ecotrust, Spencer is constantly on the move, overseeing the group's five main initiatives: indigenous affairs, fisheries, forests, food and farms, and citizenship. His successes include the founding of ShoreBank Pacific with ShoreBank Corporation of Chicago, which focuses on environmentally sustainable community development, and its affiliate ShoreBank Enterprise Pacific. Lately he's been shepherding Ecotrust Forests LLC, a new private for profit equity fund that provides a way for investors to improve human and natural environments, based on the restoration of healthy forest ecosystems.
Today Spencer and Ecotrust operate out of the Jean Vollurn Natural Capital Center in northwest Portland. He led the 2001 transformation of an old warehouse into one of the greenest, most respected, and most visited of Portland buildings. Jean Vollum, Catlin Gabel community member and longtime philanthropist, gave Ecotrust $2.5 million for the building project and is one of his great supporters. "I love Spencer," she said simply.
The building reflects Spencer's vision, a social experiment that's a microcosm of what he cares about and what he's tried to achieve over the years, using the diversity and connectedness of ecosystems as a model. "I thought it would be interesting to have a place that encourages innovation and creativity," he says. The 25 tenants under its ecoroof include the city of Portland's Office of Sustainable Development, Jeana Edelman '77's Hot Lips Pizza, a Patagonia store, a health clinic, Progressive Investments Management, and several foundations and environmental organizations. Thursday afternoon's farmers market brings together local growers and Portlanders hungry for food grown with integrity. And everyone gathers in the first floor coffee shop, where Spencer's hopes for transformational interactions take form.
Inscribed on a bench outside the Jean Vollum Natural Capital Center is a phrase that is a touchstone for Spencer: "Differentiation emerging out of generality." It reminds him continually of the principles that guide him in his quest for authenticity and action. "It's a reminder that people are part of nature, part of a large web of life, our existence depending on the support of the natural world," Spencer says. "If you recognize that, you have a natural model of development—the only reliably prosperous, model that exists."
For more on Ecotrust, visit www.ecotrust.org.