The master negotiator between business and environmentalists

Tree cutters and tree huggers agree: Gene Duvernoy has built the Cascade Land Conservancy into a potent force in politics, business, and the environment.
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Gene Duvernoy, president of the Cascade Land Conservancy. (CLC)

Tree cutters and tree huggers agree: Gene Duvernoy has built the Cascade Land Conservancy into a potent force in politics, business, and the environment.

In 1540, Spanish explorers became the first Europeans to discover a great natural vista called the Grand Canyon. On a more modest scale, I made a discovery of my own a few years ago when I walked into a downtown hotel room and beheld one of the most influential groups in our region, the Cascade Land Conservancy (CLC). I've seen the Grand Canyon, and it's good. But this sight was also breathtaking: more than 1,000 people in a room festooned with the banners of banks, law firms, and developers, and peopled with the likes of Dan Evans, Mike Lowry, Greg Nickels and Ron Sims. It wasn't just the size and the prominence of the crowd celebrating CLC but the double-take tableau of tree huggers and tree cutters applauding the same speeches. After a video on our region's natural beauty and the need to protect it, a thin man with a mustache that looked stolen from Groucho Marx walked briskly to the stage: Gene Duvernoy, president of CLC and the chief impresario of this love-in. A cynic might have doubted at least some of this display, but it was hard to argue with what Duvernoy had achieved and keeps doing. CLC gets stronger every year, as evidenced by a recent event headlined by Gov. Chris Gregoire and attended by 1,800 people. Since taking over the organization in 1991, Duvernoy has transformed CLC into Washington's largest independent conservation and stewardship organization, with allies in Seattle City Hall, the Washington Legislature, and Congress. Working in King, Kittitas, Pierce, Mason, and Snohomish counties, CLC has participated in transactions protecting more than 130,000 acres. CLC helped lead the effort to convert a rail corridor to a recreation trail on the east shore of Lake Sammamish in suburban Seattle. It quietly launched the discussions, now public, for King County to buy a 47-mile Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail line, a proposal that's since morphed into a complex plan involving the sale of Boeing Field to the Port of Seattle. Duvernoy is "very creative at finding solutions," says Rod Brandon, King County's director of environmental sustainability. CLC is also building support for its Cascade Agenda, a $7 billion, 100-year plan to protect 1.3 million acres of forest, streams, and farms. CLC's future is not burdened by modesty. "We will lead a movement to connect conservation to the fabric of our community and thereby change conservation as we know it," says the group's mission statement. The man at the center of this work was not born to be an environmental leader. He was born to bake bread, or at least that was a job for those born into Duvernoy & Sons, the New York bakery started by his grandfather and run by his father and uncle. Gene Duvernoy worked there as a helper and delivery driver but eventually studied engineering at Carnegie-Mellon University, and law and business at Cornell. Quitting a lawyer job, he moved to Seattle in 1980 to help his brother finish building a sailboat. He would join CLC after working with a farmlands-preservation group and for King County. As one would expect, Duvernoy, 55, brings a passion for the environment to his job, but he also brings a business mindset learned in part from the old bakery. Duvernoy insists that CLC, with 35 employees and an annual budget of $5.7 million, should operate like a business. "We are a nonprofit, but people shouldn't treat us as a charity case - if they did, why would landowners treat us seriously?" he asked during a recent interview. Credibility and trust are critical to what he wants in every negotiation. And by all accounts, Duvernoy is a master at understanding the needs of environmentalists, businesses, and politicians and relentlessly pushing his ideas. If you can forgive the pun, he is a force of nature. "His inspiration is my perspiration," jokes Bob Drewel, executive director of the Puget Sound Regional Council and former Snohomish County executive. When focused on a goal, Duvernoy skips the chit-chat. Former Seattle Mayor Charles Royer says friends have tried unsuccessfully to teach Duvernoy the phrase, "How about them Mariners?" Duvernoy may not care about the mechanics of a 90-mile-per-hour fastball, but he does love the moving parts of a complex negotiation. CLC sometimes buys property (it now owns 12,000 acres), but more often it's a mix of traded development rights, easements, permits, debt, private money, public money raised through "conservation futures tax" or other tools. A developer can be persuaded to set aside some of his land in exchange for building more on what's left. Environmentalists like to see green spaces locked up and politicians like to please both parties, manage growth and get some credit. (CLC is not shy about getting members to sell its proposals.) Duvernoy calls this the win-win-win scenario. The best example of this practice is a scenic tract of 145-forested acres near Snoqualmie Falls. To the alarm of environmentalists, the land was set for development by a subsidiary of Puget Sound Energy. As Duvernoy tells the story, "We solved the problem by making it bigger." He brought in King County and Weyerhaeuser. In a 2004 transaction more complex than a Vulcan chess game, Weyerhaeuser was allowed to accelerate development of land it owned. In return, Weyerhaeuser paid cash to help buy the Puget property, and it agreed not to develop its 3,500 acres of timberland between Tiger Mountain and Rattlesnake Ridge. After public meetings and discussion, the county and city of Snoqualmie amended their growth plans and zoning to allow Weyerhaeuser's additional development to go forward. Duvernoy calls that a classic example of how CLC can achieve a positive result by recognizing a balance of economic, environmental and community interests. Business people feel comfortable with Duvernoy because he supports growth. "Conservation only makes sense if people have jobs and housing," he says. That's why his board includes developers such as Peter Orser, president of Quadrant Homes. "Gene is a very thoughtful, aware, and intelligent person who realizes the picture is a lot bigger than one particular wetland," says Orser. Environmentalists also are pleased. "Gene has brought a very creative, very innovative approach to what he does," says Bill Arthur, deputy national field director for the Sierra Club. "I may or may not agree with everything, but I'm appreciative of the general thrust of what he's doing." Praise from developers and environmentalists. So it's a love-in, after all? Not quite. The vast majority of private property owners don't have the scale to benefit from such transactions. In 2005, James Vesely, Seattle Times editorial page editor, predicted trouble for the Cascade Agenda if the little guy felt left out. "If small landowners do not buy into this vision," Vesely wrote, "we have decades of trench warfare ahead of us." Sure enough, some property owners backed Initiative 933, a property rights measure that Duvernoy helped defeat in November. Duvernoy acknowledges that small-property owners need accommodation, or it's likely something like Initiative 933 will come back. He made progress on that goal when Gregoire signed legislation that begins work on a system to allow property owners in King, Pierce, Snohomish, and Kitsap counties to sell development rights to their land. Developers would fund the system in exchange for permission to increase density within growth boundaries beyond normal zoning. "This is the most significant land-use legislation since the enactment of the Growth Management Act more than a decade ago," Duvernoy said. The irrepressible Gene Duvernoy always has something grand in mind.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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O. Casey Corr

O. Casey Corr is a Seattle native, author and marketing communications consultant.