Gene Duvernoy headed the land-conservation nonprofit Forterra (previously known as the Cascade Land Conservancy) from its start in 1991 through 2018. Trained as an environmental engineer and a lawyer, Duvernoy came to the Northwest in 1980 and managed King County's Farmland Preservation Project, which bought development rights on area farmlands. Under Duvernoy's leadership, Forterra produced 100-year conservation agendas for both the Cascade and Olympic regions. By the time Duvernoy stepped down, the organization had conserved more than 275,000 acres of land, including forests, farms, shorelines, parks, and natural areas.
An Early Interest in the Land
Gene Duvernoy was born in New York to Russell and Mary Duvernoy and grew up on Long Island. His father owned and operated a bakery in Manhattan, where Gene began working from the age of 10. Although working in the city provided a sense of excitement and culture, Duvernoy became enthralled with nature. "I was always mucking around in the dirt," Duvernoy recalled, noting that his childhood nickname was "Bughead" due to his enthusiasm for both the outdoors and the creepy-crawly residents that called it home (Kershner interview). "I never understood the dichotomy many people had about the country versus the city," Duvernoy said (Kershner interview), and his sense of the interconnectedness of urban and rural environments proved to be an important part of his life's work.
As an undergrad Duvernoy went to Carnegie Mellon University, where he received a degree in engineering with an environmental emphasis. The program allowed him to be "conversant in a broad array of skills" -- a helpful background for someone who would go on to bridge differences between developers and conservationists on a national scale (Kershner interview).
After graduating from Carnegie Mellon, Duvernoy earned a law degree and an MBA from Cornell University. While at Cornell, he worked for three years with the Center for Environmental Research, where his responsibilities included evaluating environmental impact statements required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Despite not yet being a full-fledged lawyer, Duvernoy was called as an expert witness in a case involving the environmental impact of high-voltage transmission lines running through Long Island and was cross-examined for three days. Duvernoy recalls learning quite a bit from the experience. "As important as the courts were," he says, "they didn't always bring out the clearest understanding" (Kershner interview).
Smitten by Seattle
After working in Denver for a few years in environmental and land use law, Duvernoy was invited to Seattle by his brother in 1980 to help build a sailboat. As he recalls:
"The minute I got here, the sense was 'This is home.' The city had great integrity. People liked living in Seattle; it was all you could hope to have out of a city experience. Where else could you leave the city and find yourself at the top of an untrampled mountain peak?" (Kershner interview).
After deciding to stay in Seattle, Duvernoy was hired by King County Executive Randy Revelle (1941-2018) to help kick-start the county's Farmland Preservation Program. Duvernoy spent six years running the program, which had a $50-million-dollar budget and eventually bought development rights for 13,000 acres of farmland.
In 1989 Duvernoy became manager for a proposed $117.6 million open-space levy to provide funds to buy or protect more than 3,000 acres of open space, acquire or improve 185 miles of trail, and develop 250 acres of parks at more than 116 sites. The levy was approved by a massive 2 to 1 margin. Duvernoy was then appointed to lead the King County Office of Open Space, which was the agency charged with managing the land purchased with levy funds.
The Cascade Land Conservancy
During this time, Duvernoy also was running a small legal practice out of his home. Gerry Johnson, Carol James, and Frank Pritchard (later to become Cascade Land Conservancy co-founders) approached Duvernoy about taking on their organization, the Seattle-King County Land Trust, as a pro bono client. Having just received a $45,000 grant from the Wilburforce Foundation, they were anxious to have professional management. Soon the program became so robust that Duvernoy could start charging for his work on the projects, and an assistant was hired who later became a full-time employee as the work multiplied. "It sounds corny and highfalutin," Duvernoy says, but it was during this time of expansion that he "was struck that the organization could create meaningful change" (Kershner interview).
By 1991, the Land Trust had rebranded itself, initially as the Land Conservancy of Seattle and King County, and had begun to establish a name as an important player in the environmental movement in the region. In 1994, the conservancy acquired 300 acres of waterfront on Vashon-Maury Island. Formerly a gravel pit, the land became a marine park protecting native plants and animals, including spawning Chinook salmon and the largest herring-spawning population in central Puget Sound.
In 1997, Duvernoy was named president. The organization's work continued, taking on a variety of projects that protected areas around the Cascade region from development, and by 2000 it had revised its name to Cascade Land Conservancy. It gained a sterling reputation, Duvernoy said, not from "any single event or project, but a track record" (Kershner interview).
The Snoqualmie Initiative
The Snoqualmie Initiative started in 2001 as a plan to protect 145 acres of land on the cusp of Snoqualmie Falls. The land was originally scheduled for development, which would have dramatically altered the pristine area and the views around the falls. The Cascade Land Conservancy stepped in and bought the property for $13 million, which Duvernoy says was "twice the balance sheet" of the organization at the time (Kershner interview).
How did the group afford to buy property that cost double its own worth? Thanks in large part to Duvernoy's negotiating savvy, the owners of the property and the conservationists came to an ingenious solution. Keeping in mind that the second phase of Snoqualmie Ridge (a nearby development) was not permitted for development for 20 years, Duvernoy had an idea: Instead of simply trying to stop Quadrant Homes (a branch of Weyerhaeuser's real estate operations) from developing the property by the falls, why not allow Weyerhaeuser's second phase at its Snoqualmie Ridge development to be accelerated in exchange for its abandonment of plans to develop the area that Duvernoy and the Cascade Land Conservancy sought to preserve?
A deal was made. As Duvernoy and Quadrant Homes president Peter M. Orser explained:
"Quadrant Homes, King County, and the city of Snoqualmie helped purchase the 150-acre tract for $13.3 million, with Quadrant also giving up development rights to 2,800 acres in the Raging River Valley and 650 acres of forestland north of Snoqualmie Falls. The initiative also enabled Quadrant to expedite the construction of 268 new homes within its Snoqualmie Ridge master planned community, where infrastructure already exists and can accommodate growth in a more environmentally responsible way" ("Partnerships Can Protect ...").
Duvernoy pointed out that the creative solution benefited all parties and was done without costly legal battles:
"We had development in the city, where it should happen, we conserved critical property, and the 3,000 acres. It helped to understand the power you can bring to negotiating with developers" (Kershner interview).
The East Lake Sammamish Trail
The Cascade Land Conservancy also played a part in the development of the East Lake Sammamish Trail. The 11-mile-long trail was originally a Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway spur that stopped operating in 1997. The proposed trail lay on a railroad right-of-way that abutted the property of homeowners who would gain waterfront access if the right-of-way was removed rather than being transformed into a trail. The homeowners filed suit against the trail project, citing a potential invasion of privacy from trail users.
The suit, brought against Cascade Land Conservancy and Friends of the East Lake Sammamish Trail, was eventually dropped in 2005, allowing the trail to move forward. Duvernoy said the fight was worth it: "It took a couple years ... but it showed the importance of being a very well integrated organization that knew its community well" (Kershner interview).
The Cascade Agenda and the Olympic Agenda
Duvernoy continued his lobbying for conservation causes by issuing the Cascade Agenda in 2005. The Agenda is a 100-year conservation plan for 1.3 million acres in the Puget Sound area. The Agenda includes provisions to protect one million acres of working forests and farms and 265,000 acres of shorelines, natural areas, and parks. But along with conservation, a nod to the importance of growing communities is seen in the Agenda's other goal: to "maintain our rural economies and way of life and enhance the vibrancy and livability of our cities and towns" ("Cascade Agenda: A 100 Year Vision ...").
In 2011, the Cascade Land Conservancy extended its vision to include an Olympic Agenda, which stated three broad goals:
"Increase the economic vitality of the region. Diversify the Peninsula economy so that our communities flourish. Facilitate job growth that neither degrades workers nor our lands or waters. ...
"Create sustainable rural communities with a high quality of life. Facilitate the evolution of the New Northwest Town, scaled to the region, where you can still know your neighbor while taking advantage of the benefits of the nearby urban cores. ...
"Conserve the benefits that natural and working lands around the peninsula provide ("Olympic Agenda ...")."
In November 2011, the Cascade Land Conservancy changed its name to Forterra in recognition of the fact that its work had expanded both beyond the Cascade region and to embrace initiatives in addition to land conservation.
Results and Recognition
While the Northwest has long had a positive reputation for supporting environmental causes, Duvernoy worked to make conservation a paramount issue for lawmakers, businesses, and civic leaders alike. He said, "It is not so much convincing them to change their minds as demonstrating that the action or project we may be proposing aligns with the interests they hold important" (Duvernoy email).
Duvernoy's work with Forterra and throughout the Northwest did not go unnoticed. In 2004, he received the Municipal League of King County's Jim Ellis Regional Leader Award, and he was the 2009 recipient of the Washington Forest Protection Association's Stu Bledsoe Award. He was also named Non-Profit CEO of the Year in 2008 by Washington CEO magazine. Duvernoy announced his retirement in April 2018; he was succeeded as Forterra president by the group's longtime executive vice president, Michelle Connor.