In another man’s biography, Spencer Beebe’s backcountry exploits might warrant some celebrity. For Beebe '74 M.F.S., they warrant footnotes.
By Aaron Reuben
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.
On the way to a meeting in the backwoods of British Columbia, Spencer Beebe’s seaplane failed. Specifically one of the nine cylinders that ran its only engine cracked, somewhere over the dark waters of the Georgia Straight. “I was flying right seat,” Beebe remembers, “and we were in the water in about two minutes.”
Beebe and his co-pilot were lucky. Returning from a three-day trip deep in the Coast Mountains, they managed “what we call a ‘precautionary landing’” near civilization, unharmed. “We taxied into a dock that turned out to be just a few miles away from the weekend house of the guy who sold us the airplane,” Beebe says. “We found a pay phone, called him up and said, ‘Your FMAQ just crapped out! We need a place to stay. You owe us some good scotch, a fireplace, and a meal.”
In another man’s biography, Beebe’s backcountry exploits might warrant some celebrity. In his they warrant footnotes. “People ask me what’s your specialty,” he says. “I say, bushwacking in the institutional environment.”
Beebe ’74 M.F.S. has been bushwacking for some time now. In the early 1980s, soon after graduating from F&ES, he developed The Nature Conservancy’s international program (Yale “teed me up to work for TNC” he says). In 1987, in search of a more nimble organization, he and fellow Yale alum Peter Seligmann co-founded Conservation International (CI) to pursue the same goal, global biodiversity conservation, through more innovative means. (One of CI's first actions was to complete the world's first “debt for nature swap,” buying foreign debt from Bolivia in exchange for the creation of a three million acre nature reserve). Four years later Beebe founded Ecotrust, a conservation organization focused on conserving the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest while promoting rural economies. All told, Beebe’s assorted efforts have led to the conservation of millions of acres of pristine and biologically rich lands, from the pine-ringed buttes of Montana to the flooded forests of Amazonia.
On Oct. 11, he will receive an F&ES Distinguished Alumni Award. Next year the Audubon Society will present him with one of conservation’s most prestigious awards, the Dan W. Lufkin Prize for Environmental Leadership, for his lifetime of work.
Though his early international years must form the backbone of any narrative about Beebe (these years occupy half the pages of his conservation guide and memoir, Cache) it is his last venture, Ecotrust, which defines him best. This is true for two reasons. The first is obvious. Ecotrust is devoted to a region that Beebe put on the conservation world’s map: the temperate rainforests of North America. In the 1980s, when global conservation was really taking off, the world only had eyes for the tropics. “People hadn’t really thought about the temperate forests.”
Beebe is a fourth-generation Oregonian. To him the Pacific Northwest “is home.” By the end of the 1980s, as Beebe completed yet another successful conservation deal in the tropics, he realized that it was time to bring home the tools he had developed for the South. “Trees that grow 1,000 years old and 15 feet in diameter don’t grow everywhere,” he says. “I thought, well, this is as good a context as anywhere to create long-term commitments to the institutional arrangements, incentives and disincentives we need to maintain healthy ecosystems and economies.”
The second reason Beebe must be defined by Ecotrust is more subtle: Ecotrust is the only organization that Beebe has initiated or led which has proven to be as nimble as its restless founder. From the start Beebe wanted Ecotrust to pursue social and economic development in the Northwest alongside conservation. “Triple bottom line from day one,” he says. To this end Ecotrust has often blurred the line between non-profit and for-profit. The organization itself is non-profit, but it has created some twenty for-profit enterprises and self-sustaining conservation initiatives, as well unique public-private partnerships.
Over the last twenty years Ecotrust has allowed Beebe to bushwack through more than just institutions.
In northwest Portland’s Pearl district, you will find a large brick building with the inscription, “Jean Vollum Natural Capital Center.” Inside you can shop below Douglas-fir wood beams for a new insulated jacket in Patagonia's flagship Oregon store. You can meet friends for a drink beside a fireplace on the rooftop. Or, below recessed brick archways, you can attend one of the building’s 500 annual conferences carrying out their noisy business. What you are unlikely to do is recognize the building’s significance: it is the physical manifestation of the new order in environmentalism that Beebe helped build.
Ecotrust is one of few conservation organizations in the world simultaneously devoted to economic development and conservation. When it started its programing in the early 1990s it was the only one. “By day one we said social, biological, and economic health are interrelated and interdependent. That’s a fact of life,” Beebe says. Ecotrust didn’t invent this thinking. “But I think we’ve made a real commitment to put flesh on those bones as early as anyone else.”
The Natural Capital Center was designed, according to Ecotrust, to be a hub for this new thinking, “in which ‘Natural Capital’ — the flow of goods and services from nature — is our measure of prosperity and resilience.” True to Beebe’s greater vision, the building is self-sustaining, economically speaking, self-regulating environmentally ((it filters all its runoff through bioswales before sending it to the Willamette River), and self-actualizing. Inside its offices Ecotrust staff rub shoulders in shared kitchens and common spaces with progressive investment fund mangers, fair-trade coffee importers, natural healers, and all assortments of entrepreneurial start-ups. A reclaimed freight warehouse, the Center is the world’s first historic building to receive a Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) gold rating.
A building is a hard-to-miss manifestation of Beebe’s drive to think past traditional boundaries in environmental conservation, but there are others. Early on, Ecotrust partnered with ShoreBank to form a community development bank, ShoreBank Pacific (now Beneficial State Bank), to support small and natural resource-based businesses with sustainability goals, including fishing, farming and redevelopment enterprises. Beneficial State now manages $500 million in sustainability-minded assets across the Pacific Northwest. Ecotrust also started the world’s first forest ecosystem investment fund, with the goal of generating profits for investors through the sale of forest products, like timber, and ecosystem services, like wildlife habitat and carbon sequestration. In all, according to the organization, Ecotrust has “converted $30 million in grants into more than $1 billion in capital assets at work for local people, businesses, and organizations from Alaska to California.”
Did Beebe ever envision owning a conference center? “Neither a large conference center nor a bank, nor an investment fund,” he says and laughs. “Steven Wright once said, ‘I’m a peripheral visionary — I can see way ahead, but only off on the sides.’ That’s actually pretty good. I’ve never been able to see particularly far ahead,” Beebe says, “but you walk the path that you create. You’ve got to get moving and take the turns and twists as they come.”
Since 1991 Beebe and his staff have grown Ecotrust into a conservation powerhouse, with 75 employees, multiple for-profit natural resource enterprises, one innovation hub and community center, and dozens of partnerships and conservation and development programs that link native peoples, forests, oceans, agriculture, and finance. This fall, they announced a new innovation hub devoted to the local food movement, which will occupy a 24,000-square-foot office, event and manufacturing space in another section of downtown Portland.
The Pacific Northwest stretches across 2,000 miles of inlets, mountains, salmon streams and deep forest. To Beebe, up in the air is “the only way to see what we are working on.”
A few years ago Beebe bought himself a small prop plane. He asked his daughter, who was 13 at the time, to take her first ride with him. Her reply? “She said, this is an old piece of crap airplane and you don’t know what you’re doing and I’d rather not be doing this.” Beebe laughs in the re-telling. “I said, don’t worry about a thing, and about five miles from the airport the engine quit.” The pair landed, jangled but unscathed, at a grass strip beside a shopping mall.
A defining characteristic of Beebe’s life and career has been fearlessness. As one Ecotrust staff put it, “He is not afraid of failure.” Beebe admits he’s taken risks in life, “but fortunately,” he says, “I’ve learned from all of them. And I’ve survived them.” The world is better for it.
About the Author
Aaron Reuben is a 2012 graduate of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, where he served as managing editor of Sage Magazine. His writing has appeared in Grist, Sierra Magazine, and the Atlantic.