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    The Seattle Times

    Negotiating for nature: Duvernoy a key figure in area conservation efforts

    Monday, March 25, 2002
    by Chris Solomon
    Seattle Times Eastside bureau

    Ron Sims needed a leader. It was late February, and a $50 million hole gaped in the King County budget. Sims, the county executive, had just announced that instead of reopening in three days, 20 parks that had been closed all winter would have to remain in mothballs.

    He wanted a task force to dream up new ways to finance parks, and an innovator with "guts" to guide it.

    He chose Gene Duvernoy.

    Duvernoy, the 49-year-old president of Seattle's Cascade Land Conservancy, has emerged as the go-to man in matters of parkland and open space. Few other people have such a hand in shaping this area's future appearance, say leaders both in county government and Washington state's conservation community.

    Duvernoy played a major role in January's much-lauded agreement to buy 100,000 acres of Weyerhaeuser timberland in East King County to protect it from development.

    He also helped craft a complex proposal last year to protect about 3,500 acres of forest north and south of Snoqualmie from development, as well as 145 acres of forest facing Snoqualmie Falls.

    The 13-year-old conservancy he runs almost regularly announces new land-preservation deals, from a 58-acre wetland on the Sammamish Plateau to rugged lands bordering the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

    "If you want someone to protect a piece of property, and you can get Gene's attention, he's the guy you go to in King County," said Peter Scholes, director of protection for the Nature Conservancy of Washington.

    "The residents of this region spend 90 percent of their time within 25 miles of their home," Duvernoy said in a recent interview. "Shouldn't we as a community be able to enjoy ecosystems and landscapes of integrity right where we live and raise our families?"

    Duvernoy's speech still carries the angularity of an upbringing in New York, where his father owned a French bakery that supplied rolls and bread to hotels and restaurants.

    He was exposed to the nascent environmental movement in the early 1970s while at Carnegie Mellon University, where he studied engineering and graduated in 1974. He received law and business degrees from Cornell University.

    Duvernoy arrived in Seattle in 1980 to help a brother build a sailboat. The sailboat is now in Alaska, but Duvernoy has never left — except for one year when he traveled around Europe with his wife on a tandem bike. "The minute I arrived," he said, "this was home."

    Randy Revelle, King County executive at the time, hired him to revive the struggling Farmland Preservation Act, and for six years Duvernoy oversaw a $50 million program that bought development rights for 13,000 acres of farmland.

    After taking time off to manage the successful campaign for a $117 million county open-space levy in 1989, he became manager of the King County Office of Open Space, responsible for buying the land. Duvernoy quit the county a year later and began to work for a young organization now known as the Cascade Land Conservancy. The conservancy blurs old boundaries between conservation groups by buying land outright, brokering land deals for others and monitoring some forests and wetlands.

    The conservancy has grown and expanded its scope under Duvernoy. Not counting this year's Evergreen Forest Trust transaction, the conservancy has been the principal player in protecting at least 9,000 acres in the three-county area.

    Sims called Duvernoy a "defining personality" of King County in the spirit of airplane maker Bill Boeing or Jim Ellis, father of the 1960s' Forward Thrust public-works package — "people who can literally define a legacy that will affect generations," the executive said. "Those are wonderful people to watch."

    Those who have worked for Duvernoy and those who have sat across the negotiating table from him agree that years of trust building in smaller transactions have established his credibility — a particular asset as land-conservation schemes grow larger, more complicated and more expensive.

    The days of people simply donating large tracts of property or easements are largely gone, said Dale Bonar, Northwest program director of the Land Trust Alliance. "So the necessity to find money to pay for protecting that land has increased."

    Finding the money

    Duvernoy has earned a reputation for showing imaginative ways to come up with that money — an asset that will be tested as he leads a county task force to find new ways to fund county parks.

    Even as the public has clamored to keep the county's prized park system open and running smoothly, there is skepticism whether the government has used its money smartly. Duvernoy's group will have to brainstorm ideas that could be tough sells to voters.

    Possible solutions, in the form of a tax for a new parks district, or leasing naming rights to parks, have been floated recently. Duvernoy has declined to speculate on what ideas will be proposed. The task force is to report back in June.

    "He knows all the options out there, and he's not afraid to be creative," said Lora Brown, an attorney who has represented individuals in land transactions with the conservancy.

    He is not, for example, above cutting trees to save other trees. The $185 million to buy and protect the massive Weyerhaeuser tree farm from development would come from continued logging on much of the land. Still, if the deal's financing gets federal approval, management of about one-fifth of the 100,000 acres would be turned over to the Cascade Land Conservancy and the land would be used as ecological preserves.

    "He's been the environmental conscience of the deal, really," said Gerry Johnson, the trust's president and a member of the conservancy's board.

    Duvernoy is also praised for an ability to keep parties talking and find solutions that satisfy disparate needs of developers, environmentalists and politicians.

    When negotiations on the Snoqualmie Preservation Initiative stalled two years ago, Lynn Claudon, then-director of land use for Weyerhaeuser Real Estate, invited Duvernoy to help break the impasse. The city of Snoqualmie was focused on shielding land near Snoqualmie Falls from development, while Weyerhaeuser wanted to move forward on the second phase of home building at its Snoqualmie Ridge development, Claudon recalled.

    "He was able to step back and look at all of the issues on the table and mix and match the pieces so that everyone was able to see how they would benefit from a comprehensive deal," said Claudon, now a consultant and friend of Duvernoy.

    "The need that's out there is requiring us to be more sophisticated," Duvernoy said. "It's a wonderful game. You increasingly have to get more clever."

    A low profile and restrained ego make it easier for Duvernoy to hatch deals — and have kept occasionally unpopular or controversial ideas from following him.

    In 1997, for example, the conservancy paid $2 million for a 12-mile-long railroad right of way along the east shore of Lake Sammamish — the proposed site of a controversial trail that would cross yards and driveways.

    One year later, he represented soccer interests before King County in a proposal allowing farmland in Woodinville to be used for active recreation while preserving its agricultural status. The state Supreme Court ultimately ruled the arrangement illegal.

    In the recent Evergreen Forest deal, a few conservation activists have worried Duvernoy and others sacrificed too much to get the land.

    "That piece of property was a piece that was badly degraded by Weyerhaeuser, then sold for what I feel is an outrageous amount of money — and then to be held by conservation agencies, to be continually logged, to pay that price off," said David Gladstone, a retired actuary who has worked with the conservancy. Gladstone and his wife, Melinda, founded a small foundation that buys land in Washington to restore and preserve its habitat.

    "I have a lot of respect for Gene," he said of Duvernoy, but added, "I think there are so few environmental entities that are working to preserve land without conditions, preserve it without compromises."

    A passion for protection

    Duvernoy is savvy and well-connected, observers say — Seattle Mayor-elect Greg Nickels chose him for his transition team — but is not slick. Speaking passionately in his office on a recent morning, Duvernoy more resembled an enthusiastic high-school biology teacher. Beneath a sweater he wore a forest-green knitted tie whose knot did not seem a priority. His thick black mustache jutted like a push broom.

    "We have such an obligation to that next generation to provide them with at least as much as what we had, in terms of quality of life, a functioning environment and a tolerant society. My generation could work harder at that," he said. "This is just my little way of contributing."

    Asked about his next undertaking, Duvernoy smiled but said nothing — unwilling, again, to get in front of the deal.