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Conservation Voices: It takes an ecosystem – how and why conservation coalitions work 

By Michelle Connor, President and CEO, Forterra   

Recently, Washington Wild’s Executive Director Tom Uniack invited me to offer my response to the not infrequent question we each get from our supporters who are passionate about the Pacific Northwest and about nature, but wonder how to provide resources to support us all: “Why do we need so many environmental groups?”  

The missions of Washington Wild and Forterra are driven by a commitment to protecting Washington’s ecosystems. It’s worth pausing for a moment to consider the ecosystems and niches of our environmental community. As with natural ecosystems, Washington’s conservation community is a product of the intersection of our geography, culture, and the unique challenges that we must adapt to and strive to influence. The organizations that comprise our community have evolved to address various aspects of need and to fill various ecological niches.  

More than forty years ago, the founders of Washington Wild recognized that there was a need for organized advocacy to ensure that greater ecological and community benefits were achieved from lands in the public trust. Ten years later, Forterra’s founders recognized an unfulfilled need, and ever since we have focused on achieving more ecological and community benefits from privately-held properties than regulations require.  

This has led us honing skills in development, real estate and land use law, negotiation strategies, finance and capital campaigns, policy-making, community engagement, and more. Our work often strives to secure community or public ownership of land. We pass the baton in terms of policy making for public land management and recreational access, because others are better skilled and focused on filling that niche. But, to answer our supporters, just because we don’t do that work does not mean it lacks importance. To the contrary! Forterra’s success depends entirely on the critical work of Washington Wild, and efforts led by other nonprofits, whether Washington Trails Association or Washington Native Plant Society, Conservation Northwest, Got Green, and so many others.  

Forterra brings together coalitions of neighborhoods, elected officials, landowners, developers, business leaders and find paths to voluntary land conservation transactions. Washington Wild does equally critical work bringing together coalitions to advocate for the protection of federal and state lands and ensuring the management of our public lands benefits all of us. Each of these niches require focus and specialization; and one would fail to deliver what our conservation ecosystem needs to thrive in the absence of the other’s work. Even when we don’t work directly with one another. 

Here’s a great example – The Skagit River. 

Photo Courtesy of Andy Porter Photography

Years ago, Forterra allowed me to take time from my day job to serve on the Skagit Environmental Endowment Commission. The reason: There were copper and gold mining interests in the British Columbia headwaters of the watershed that threaten the integrity of this magnificent river, and I had the knowledge and skills to pursue an acquisition. After more than 8 years serving on the commission it became clear that we did not have a willing seller in Imperial Metals despite efforts by this transboundary treaty entity to offer fair compensation.  

Meanwhile, downstream, Forterra has begun work to purchase the upland expansion area for the town of Hamilton, which offers a long-term alternative for hundreds of families living in harm’s way along the river while occupying critical salmon habitat. Our organization is focused on creating an alternative affordable location for local businesses and homeowners currently in the floodplain to relocate. Yet, if a mine and tailings pond are allowed to be constructed in the headwaters of the river, the efforts of so many organizations and agencies will be put at untenable risk.  

We are all relying on Washington Wild to lead an international coalition to oppose logging and mining threats in the Skagit Headwaters and in doing so to protect the downstream investment that others, including Forterra, are making in the lower watershed. We all need Washington Wild’s specialized state-based advocacy. We work in compliment to achieve distinct and overlapping goals to keep Washington green for future generations. 

Tom and I are grateful for your ongoing support of our combined efforts. 

Michelle Connor is President and CEO of Forterra and is a key member of a coalition Washington Wild is coordinating to protect the headwaters of the Skagit River from logging and mining threats.