Few Portlanders’ boots have left their prints so widely yet so lightly across the Western Hemisphere as Spencer Beebe’s. From his Peace Corps work with the “Garifuna” fishermen on the north coast of Honduras in the late ’60s to 13 years saving critical habitats for the Nature Conservancy and Conservation International to his founding of Ecotrust in 1991, Beebe stands as one of the most trailblazing American conservationists of the past 40 years. In his new autobiography, Cache: Creating Natural Economies, set for release this month, Beebe offers a tell-all look at his successes, failures, and the larger, often rut-ridden forks in the road between.
At turns swashbuckling, introspective, and eccentric, the book shares a series of tales about such varied pursuits as his purchases of major swaths of land across the West, a groundbreaking “debt-for-nature” swap in Bolivia, and the creation of the world’s first “eco-bank,” Shorebank Pacific. But Cache also maps Beebe’s gradual understanding that the most sustainable preservation efforts need to begin with human economies—a realization that ultimately led to the controversial 1987 “uprising” he led at the Nature Conservancy that resulted in his founding of Conservation International and, later, Ecotrust.
In this excerpt, a young Beebe (who would later become a deadly effective fundraiser) recalls his stumbling first success convincing the notoriously reserved Portland patrons Howard and Jean Vollum to help the Conservancy jumpstart the protection of the 600,000-acre watershed along the 40-mile corridor of the Sandy River.
The Sandy River, Oregon
Fresh out of graduate school in the summer of 1974, I landed a job with the Nature Conservancy’s Northwest Office in Portland. An $11,000 annual salary, even though I had to raise it myself, seemed like great good fortune. One of my first tasks was to assemble private lands along the Sandy River, just 20 miles east of Portland.
Some old family friends, Sam and Arch Diack, had acquired 270 acres of land back in 1941, almost three-quarters of a mile on both sides of the Sandy River. Now, years later, they wanted to give 160 acres of their Sandy River property to the Nature Conservancy. But recognizing that 160 acres do not a wild river make, the Diacks challenged the Conservancy to commit to a long-term program of protecting an entire six-mile river corridor between Dodge Park to the south and Oxbow Park to the north. Our game plan was to purchase properties that threatened the larger river ecosystem with the kind of subdivisions that had invaded the lower river decades before. First, of course, we had to raise some cash. We had enjoyed some success raising $500–5,000 gifts with guided rafting trips down the river, but we neededsome big fish, and Portland’s biggest at the time were Howard and Jean Vollum.
Howard and his navy friend Jack Murdock had founded and built Tektronix, a pioneer in the development of the oscilloscope and eventually thousands of electronic components, and one of Oregon’s great business success stories, not to mention the state’s largest private employer. The problem was that no one in the philanthropy community knew the Vollums—not even their phone number. Howard and his wife, Jean, were a quiet, unassuming couple busy raising five sons and building a business. Which isn’t to say they weren’t generous. The Vollums had made very substantial gifts to Portland schools and universities and for the magnificent Mt Angel Abbey Library, designed by Alvar Aalto. But they made almost all of their gifts anonymously. Having exhausted all leads through the appropriate high-society channels, in a stroke of either desperation or momentary common sense, I picked up the Portland phone directory and looked up Howard Vollum. There it was, his number, right in the phone book!