Home mission statement Forterra should go back to the basics of preserving open spaces

Forterra should go back to the basics of preserving open spaces


For an environmental organization accustomed to basking in the glow of community admiration, Forterra NW’s fall from grace was particularly brutal, abrupt and potentially deadly.

Today, Forterra’s Board of Directors is reviewing its practices and mission. This questioning is necessary for the association to regain trust and continue the important conservation work that has made it a major environmental player.

Forterra should go back to basics and once again focus on finding and preserving open spaces. Its forays into property development have largely failed to live up to expectations. Its recent debacle with the Snoqualmie Indian Tribe shows an organization plagued by hubris, arrogance and incompetence.

Founded in 1989 as the Seattle King County Land Trust and renamed the Cascade Land Conservancy, it initially sought to help landowners with forests and farms conserve green space. Sometimes this meant buying development rights or buying properties later sold to governments for permanent protection. In 2021, the nonprofit listed net assets of $45 million.

He earned a well-deserved reputation for finding and saving valuable land. But in 2006, the organization updated its mission statement to include community development.

Rebranded as Forterra in 2011, its logo includes an ampersand for the letter “e” – reflecting its added reach. He has been involved in urban development projects in the central area of ​​Seattle and Rainier Beach, among others.

Earlier this year, he embarked on his most ambitious project. Called “Forest to Home”, Forterra intended to partner with the Snoqualmie Indian Tribe to harvest timber from their lands, use the timber to create prefab housing in Darrington, and build affordable housing in underserved communities, including the Hilltop neighborhood of Tacoma – all with the help of a $35.7 million grant from the federal government.

To say the deal went south is an understatement.

The Snoqualmie Indian Tribe accused Forterra of mislead him and the federal government. The Greater Tacoma Community Foundation, which invested in the investment arm of Forterra to fund the Hilltop project, accused Forterra of twisting its plans. In a letter to the Forterra board also signed by the president of the Seattle Foundation, Greater Tacoma Community Foundation president Kathi Littmann wrote that she has no confidence in Forterra’s leadership team. .

Last month, a group of 80 former Forterra staff wrote an open letter criticizing its relationship with the Snoqualmie Indian tribe. They wanted to “defend the organization from its current mismanagement and lack of leadership at the executive level and implore a dramatic change in leadership to preserve Forterra’s treasured legacy…”

In response, the Forterra board hired a law firm to investigate the tribe’s concerns. He found that Forterra’s missteps “did not appear to have resulted from malicious or deceptive intent.” For an organization once advertised as “a catalytic force” for good, that’s a low bar indeed.

The law firm found many areas of concern, and its recommendations for future government funding applications — get feedback from the leadership team, involve the appropriate technical experts, fact check — read like Grant Writing 101 By now, Forterra should have known better.

Forterra fired the executive who oversaw real estate transactions. The Times reported that the executive, Tobias Levey, settled a civil lawsuit accusing him of fraud, embezzlement and personal dealings in 2017 in a New York project involving property acquisition, housing construction and logging.

In an email, the tribe’s director of government affairs, Jaime Martin, said Levey’s story “makes ridiculous” the idea that Forterra acted in good faith.

In an interview last week, Forterra Board Chair Beth Birnbaum said the board is currently considering governance and oversight of the organization. Of the ‘Forest to Home’ project, Birnbaum said, “It’s a complicated vision, but I think all the aspects fit together well and are achievable.”

Birnbaum said Forterra is a “learning organization” that pushes boundaries, but said part of the internal conversations revolved around whether Forterra should scale back. “It makes us think about what we do ourselves, versus what we accomplish through partnerships.”

There are many groups that develop social housing. Good intentions aside, Forterra should back out of this deal. It must also actively engage with partners, critics, and employees who believe the organization has gone astray.

On Election Day, voters in King County approved a property tax increase to pay for the acquisition of more open space. For decades, Forterra has partnered in land conservation with King County – 35% of its revenue comes from government grants and contracts. Expect Forterra, if it still exists, to be heavily involved in how these new taxes are spent. This adds urgency to the council’s thoughts.

Forterra can build on its long legacy of effective conservation, but only if leadership accurately self-assesses its weaknesses, admits where it went wrong, makes appropriate personnel changes, and recalibrates its historic mission.