Executive Q+A with Gene Duvernoy
Forterra president is intent on preserving what matters most.
May 15, 2017By Leslie Helm
Founded in 1989 as the Cascade Land Conservancy, Gene Duvernoys conservation and stewardship organization known as Forterra, now boasting a staff of 50, has managed more than 400 transactions on $500 million worth of real estate to conserve more than 250,000 acres of land.
YOUTH: I grew up in New York. My father had a bakery [in Manhattan], where I worked from the time I was 10. We lived on Long Island and I always loved going into the city. I always wondered: When are they going to finish building it? I also loved wandering around the woods and the beaches. I took nature study courses when other kids were playing Little League.
EDUCATION: I did a degree in civil engineering at Carnegie Mellon, where we did mathematical modeling of urban systems and pondered issues from urban transportation to what makes good environmental systems. I studied law at Cornell University to understand how the system worked, so I could have a voice in it.
SEATTLE: I moved to Seattle to help my brother build a sailboat. The first day I got here in 1980, I knew this was home. It was a wonderful city with wonderful mountains. After working at Battelle Research Center doing nuclear safety, I helped Randy Revelle get elected as King County executive. He let me take over a farmland preservation program that had been tied up in the courts. I ended up spending $50 million to buy development rights over 14,500 acres of farmland. At the time, it was the largest farmland preservation program in the nation.
CONSERVATION: I was practicing environmental law when I took on the Seattle/King Country land trust on a pro bono basis. In 1997, I became president. I began hiring more people and opened a downtown office.
DEALMAKING: Success was a matter of being smart about real estate and finance and having credibility with the key players. There was a large chunk of land behind Snoqualmie Falls worth $13 million that Puget Sound Energy wanted to develop and the city of Snoqualmie wanted to save. I bought the land with a financing contingency. At the time, Weyerhaeuser had completed phase one of Snoqualmie Ridge, a big development, but had to hold off for 20 years to develop the next phase. I persuaded King and Pierce counties to allow Weyerhaeuser to develop the land right away. In exchange, Weyerhaeuser paid the $13 million for the land and granted an easement to conserve 3,400 acres of timberland.
THE FORTERRA TRIANGLE: Think of a triangle with the base representing the value of real estate in the Puget Sound region. At the very top are the iconic, pristine properties like Mount Rainier. We helped preserve the Teanaway River valley and Moolock lakes. There is $2 billion to $3 billion of those lands still at risk, and we are constantly looking to direct land conservation funding to their preservation.
FARMS AND FORESTS: There is $5 billion to $7 billion worth of working farmland and forestland that give us ecosystem services like clean water, clean air, food, open space and recreation. This land generates cash flow. Here we look at financing and other ways to make it continue to function so that it isnt converted to other use.
RURAL AREAS: There are 300,000 acres of rural lands and communities such as Skykomish and Darrington. If the rural lands get converted to development, even at one home per 10 acres, you get roads and septic systems so they stop to function environmentally. With those lands worth $80 billion, there is no way to get financing to conserve them. So how do we create towns that have all the values of a traditional town but have the economy of tomorrow so people will want to live there and rural lands are conserved?
CITIES: The bottom layer of the triangle is the cities like Seattle and Tacoma and they are worth a gazillion dollars. Here its about humanity. How do you make the city a place where we can all live lives of dignity so that we dont sprawl into other landscapes? Thats why you see us spending so much time not just on the parks in our cities but on small businesses and affordable homes. Encouraging the development of cross-laminated timber [which can use wood taken from thinning forests] may help us create jobs in rural areas while helping us build our cities in more carbon-friendly ways.
THEORY OF CHANGE: We are in constant round-the-year conversation with our community. We literally invite high-tech executives, union leaders and others from all sectors of society and all geographies around the dinner table to talk about how to be more sustainable through real estate so that we are operating almost on a consensus basis within our region.
COMPETITIVENESS: If we can create nodes of affordable communities linked by efficient transportation, that will make us more competitive. Research by Brookings Institution shows that capital follows efficient geographies.
TAKE 5: Get to Know Gene Duvernoy
FAVORITE AUTHOR: Joseph Wood Krutch, a naturalist who wrote books such as The Twelve Seasons and The Measure of Man.
WHEELS: My wife and I share a car, but I drive my Rodriguez [a bicycle made in Seattle] because I always know how long it will take to get anywhere.
MANAGEMENT LESSON: My father used to walk around the bakery squeezing the rolls and talking to the bakers. Now I go to all our offices and nose about talking to everybody. I call that management by squeezing the rolls.
FAVORITE PLACE: Wherever I am on Friday. From May to November, I take Fridays off to find new places to hike or climb. I promise my wife that Ill be home by midnight.
BIGGEST CHALLENGE: We need to understand how the next-gen leadership looks at a well-functioning city. Wed better understand this new generation and make our work relevant to them and make it serve them.
Executive Q+A responses have been edited and condensed.