January 12, 2004
By Michelle Cole
Spencer Beebe: The Ecotrust founder and capitalist blazes his own trail
The sky was turquoise the day Spencer Beebe chartered a helicopter to fly Portland heiress Marie Louise Feldenheimer to the Olympic Peninsula.
They landed on a beach fringed with old-growth cedar. Sitting on driftwood, they nibbled Swiss chocolate and marveled at the basalt stacks and dramatic arches rising along the shore. Then Beebe popped the question: Would she be willing to write a $500,000 check to make sure this place remains just as it is, forever?
Yes, she said.
That day was more than 25 years ago, but it lives as part of the lore that follows Spencer Beebe.
At 57, Beebe has spent a career working to preserve natural landscapes in the Northwest and the world. But he hardly fits the environmental activist stereotype.
He won't sue. He'll ask anyone for help — from the very rich to the very big timber corporation. He focuses on the positive — this fall urging people living in British Columbia to Northern California to consider themselves part of a united "Salmon Nation."
And he's an avowed capitalist — albeit his own brand of "natural" capitalist who blends economic, environmental and societal interests.
"I'm more of an introvert than an extrovert. I'd rather get along than get in a big fight," Beebe said recently as he stroked the neck of his nearly constant companion, Bumble, a golden retriever.
And now Ecotrust, the nonprofit Beebe created in 1991 to preserve Pacific Northwest rain forests, is launching the latest manifestation of his unconventional conservation: It will go into the timber business.
A new investment fund, Ecotrust Forests, is seeking investors to buy lands that turn a profit through logging. The twist: Along with harvesting timber and creating employment for nearby communities, the forests will be managed to profit from other values, such as clean water, recreation and wildlife habitat.
It may be surprising, then, that Beebe's most strident critics come from the conservation community. He is arrogant, some say. Not a team player.
Others, including longtime environmental activist Andy Kerr, say Beebe is misguided in his attempts to marry capitalism and the environment.
"While you can make a living off nature," Kerr said, "you can make a killing off of exploiting nature."
Beebe's fans have a different opinion.
"I love Spencer," said philanthropist Jean Vollum, who gave Ecotrust $2.5 million toward the purchase and renovation of a dilapidated 105-year-old brick warehouse in Portland's Pearl District.
The former railside warehouse, known today as the Jean Vollum Natural Capital Center, has won recognition nationwide for a restoration in which salvaged timbers were used to create a new penthouse, original 2-by-10-inch plank wood floors were left exposed and a grassy "ecoroof" soaks up rainwater.
Working with Beebe for more than 35 years, Vollum said, there have been a couple of times when Beebe had an idea that sounded "a little hairbrained." But she's learned to trust.
"He gets these stars in his eyes, and he imagines something that would be so perfect," she said. "The way he talks about it, it's like listening to a poet."
Even as rain poured through the roof four years ago, Beebe predicted the Natural Capital Center would become a nexus for environmental groups and businesses with an environmental bent, such as retailer Patagonia. But conservationists later complained that the office rental rate, while competitive for the Pearl District, was twice what some groups were paying elsewhere in Portland.
Beebe makes no excuses.
"No money, no mission," he said. "When you spend $12.5 million on a restoration and without a lot of fancy extras…. You know what you've got to get for it. And if you don't, you're out of business."
When it comes to raising money for the environment, Cecil Andrus said, Beebe can "seduce them like nobody else."
Several years ago, Beebe arranged to take wealthy donors, including the future wife of designer Oscar de la Renta, on a rafting trip through the Snake River Birds of Prey area in southern Idaho. He invited Andrus, who served as U.S. Interior secretary and four terms as Idaho governor. He also invited actor Robert Redford.
When Redford left the rafting party early to avoid reporters, the media mistook Beebe for the movie star. He went along with it for a while.
It's unlikely that many people today would mistake Beebe for Redford. But Beebe does resemble a character Redford might play.
In the city, Beebe is the East Coast preppie, favoring cotton oxford shirts, roundish glasses, casual khaki slacks, clogs and tussled salt-and-pepper hair. In the country, he's more of the cowboy, wearing a tattered brown hat.
His life passions include a vintage 1948 Stinson airplane. Longtime friend and colleague Ken Margolis said Beebe flies a mere 60 to 70 feet above the desert.
"I've done things with Spencer that I'd be afraid to do with somebody else," Margolis said. "He's very bold and brave and loves adventure. But I always feel safe with Spencer. He has a kind of charmed life."
Five generations of the Beebe family have been rooted in Oregon, exploring its forests, deserts, mountains and rivers.
Raised in Portland, Beebe attended the private Catlin Gabel School. He participated on the football, tennis and ski teams. But classmates also remember Beebe as someone who kept to himself, sitting in the car and tying fishing flies while friends drank beer at a party.
Beneath Beebe's senior class picture in the 1964 yearbook is a quote from William Blake: "No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings."
The passage resonated for Beebe who, through a seventh-grade teacher, discovered a love of falconry, a pursuit he says he'd love to continue today if he could find the time.
After high school, Beebe went east to Williams College, where he earned a bachelor's degree in economics. He also met his future wife, Janie Magavern, who says she had no interest in "drunken fraternity guys" and was drawn instead to Beebe and photos of his grandparents in his dorm room.
After Williams, Beebe spent four years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras. That gave Beebe a Vietnam deferment and left him with a deep respect for indigenous cultures.
Beebe and Magavern met up again in Costa Rica, where they built a 31-foot ketch. They married before setting sail Christmas Eve for the Pacific Islands. After a year cruising, the couple docked in Galapagos, where Beebe learned he'd been accepted into the Yale School of Forestry.
After completing his master's degree, Beebe went home to Oregon and a job in The Nature Conservancy's regional office.
"After two or three months, I considered letting him go because he seemed to be too shy to approach people," Margolis said.
Within two years, Margolis called Beebe into his office and told him: "We're going to change places. You're going to be the boss, and I'm going to work for you."
Beebe persuaded The Nature Conservancy's board of governors to take on a different mix of projects. Among them: 23,000 acres at Sycan Marsh, an important wetland for birds about 50 miles east of Crater Lake.
The land had a 40-year grazing lease on it, and The Nature Conservancy's upper echelon wasn't thrilled about getting into the cattle business. "You think of venture capitalists. He's a venture conservationist. He's always pushing the envelope," said Russ Hoeflich, The Nature Conservancy's Oregon director.
In 1980, Beebe was asked to move to Washington, D.C., to run the conservancy's international program. Rather than acquiring land, Beebe wanted to mentor local groups that would set their own conservation priorities.
The program was wildly successful, particularly in Latin America. That is, until the day Beebe left, taking 36 of the 45-member international staff with him.
Geoffrey Barnard, who chose to stay with the conservancy, said the circumstances leading to the breakup were very complicated.
"During the turmoil," he said, "the president of the conservancy said, 'Spencer is a peregrine falcon. I just want to have a beeper on him so I know where he is. But I want him to fly high.' "
Instead, Beebe and others created a new organization, Conservation International. But by 1990, Beebe had grown weary of "strutting around the world, as though we have the answers."
He'd pace his office unable to push one question from his mind: If saving rain forests is so important, why isn't anyone saving the coastal temperate rain forests of the Pacific Northwest?
Ecotrust was created to do just that.
In the 13 years since its start, Ecotrust's budget has been in the black. And Beebe has continued to win support from wealthy donors, including Howard and Peter Buffett, sons of investor Warren Buffett, and actor Paul Newman.
Ecotrust has had mixed results with projects, however. Working with the Haisla Nation, Ecotrust helped preserve British Columbia's Kitlope Valley, one of the largest intact coastal watersheds.
The organization was not as successful working with the local community to solve environmental and economic problems plaguing Washington's Willapa Bay.
Beebe says the Willapa project wasn't a failure, as it resulted in the launch of Shorebank Pacific, an Ilwaco, Wash.-based bank with a commitment to environmentally sustainable community development. It may be the only bank to have a staff environmental scientist to evaluate loan applications.
Family, friends and colleagues say Beebe isn't the type to be discouraged if one of his ideas doesn't work out as planned.
He has plenty more.
Oregonian researcher Lynne Palombo contributed to this report. Michelle Cole: 503-294-5143; michellecole [at] news.oregonian.com