“His accomplishments in stitching this wounded world back together are vast, original and matched by a breadth of vision that instills greatness in others.” -Paul Hawken
Through two decades of leadership at The Nature Conservancy in the 1970s and 1980s, and as co-founder of Conservation International, Spencer Beebe emerged as one of the best in the world at protecting vital habitats and endangered species from encroachment and loss due to global development. By the late 1980s, however, he realized that he couldn’t tell other countries how to balance conservation and development — until he’d modeled it at home.
In 1991, Spencer returned to Portland to found Ecotrust to protect and restore his native Pacific Northwest — “the rain forests of home.” Ecotrust would work to create economies that value the rich and distinctive characteristics of our landscapes. And over the last 25 years, Spencer created a new paradigm not only for conservation, but for how we organize our societies and economies around nature. He has pushed Ecotrust to catalyze “practical, radical change” in the way people bank, manage forests, eat, and exercise their citizenship in communities and landscapes from California to Alaska. And his work has inspired change around the world.
Spencer has shared his tireless penchant for innovation with a wide swath of civil society, as a board member for companies, organizations, and foundations from Alaska to Brazil. What marks Spencer’s style is the way he weaves unusual alliances, convening all manner of people around shared issues — from forest dwellers in the Amazon to power brokers in Washington. In his inner circle, Spencer has counted friends like the late Jack Vaughn, the second director of the Peace Corps; John Craighead, the brilliant grizzly researcher; Murray Gell-Mann, author and Nobel-prize winning physicist; the renowned urbanist Jane Jacobs, and Yvon Chouinard, the irreverent mountaineer-cum-Patagonia-founder.
Spencer's TEDx Portland talk
Ecotrust’s earliest work on the ground centered around one of those unusual alliances. Spencer gathered Haisla Elders, ex-loggers, local environmentalists, regional scientists, and, eventually, a sympathetic British Columbia minister of the environment into a formidable coalition that convinced a timber company into renouncing logging rights to the largest intact coastal watershed in North America. The magnificent 800,000-acre Kitlope River Valley became a cultural heritage park and the epicenter of the Haisla’s revitalization efforts. Haisla elder Cecil Paul said Spencer and others had saved the Kitlope by joining the Haisla’s “magic canoe,” a metaphor for a transformative movement: a vessel that grows and adds as many paddlers as needed to complete a journey.
A few years later, as Ecotrust searched for a new headquarters and hub for social enterprise, Spencer joined forces with the Vollum family, founders of Oregon’s tech economy, to purchase and restore an old warehouse in downtown Portland. The Jean Vollum Natural Capital Center was the first historic renovation certified Gold by the then-nascent LEED green building standard, and it led the city of Portland to develop incentives for green building. The Natural Capital Center has since drawn 5 million visitors from all over the world.
By that time, Spencer had also nurtured relationships with banking pioneers Ron Grzywinski and Mary Houghton of ShoreBank, a Chicago-based community development bank with more than $2 billion in assets. Together, they created the nation’s first environmental bank, ShoreBank Pacific, now part of the One PacificCoast Bank family that is providing beneficial banking up and down the West Coast.
Spencer has always creatively leveraged capital to scale a new economy — finding ways to let mission drive money. Ecotrust’s financial innovations include a revolving loan fund for community-based fishermen; a community development entity that has distributed $167 million in federal New Markets Tax Credits to job creation and landscape protection in rural areas; and a first-in-the-nation ecosystem-based investment fund and related forest investment management company.
Spencer has also deliberately tied the organization’s own financial stake and future to the success of the new, natural economy, by investing the Natural Capital Fund, Ecotrust’s working endowment, in impactful and innovative technology, eco-tourism, green building, media, and other ventures around the region. He was an impact investor, long before we had a name for it.
“The question now,” Spencer said recently, “is how to jujitsu the forces of the global back to the advantage of the local.”
Working intensely at home for more than two decades, Spencer has shaped an organic organizational culture that constantly innovates and iterates on ideas — disruptive, bottom-up, open-source, hybridized to the core. With Ecotrust’s leadership, he is now working to transform the organization for the next generation, taking a networked approach to share solutions to the global problems of climate change, financial instability, and democracies in transition.