SEATTLE — The Snoqualmie Indian Tribe has accused the Seattle-based land conservancy Forterra of misleading the tribe and the federal government in obtaining a grant worth up to $20 million to help fund a regional sustainable timber and housing project.
The tribe, which was one of Forterra’s partners in the grant application to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says the application appears to have included timber harvesting plans that the tribe never agreed to and unrealistic claims regarding promised outcomes.
In a Sept. 23 letter to the USDA, tribal chair Robert M. de los Angeles also said the tribe is concerned that Forterra may have “tokenized” other partners in order to obtain the grant. The tribe based east of Seattle has withdrawn its support and is asking the USDA to perform a “full review and audit” of Forterra’s application and the grant’s approval.
Forterra’s board chair, Beth Birnbaum, responded to the USDA on Wednesday, calling the nonprofit “shocked and saddened” by the tribe’s withdrawal, “especially since the concerns raised were not previously conveyed during our good-faith negotiations with the Tribe during the application process.”
Birnbaum didn’t refute allegations in her letter to the USDA; the nonprofit’s board has enlisted a law firm to review the tribe’s claims, she wrote.
Formerly called the Cascade Land Conservancy, the nonprofit Forterra has become a prominent agent for land preservation over several decades, adding dozens of employees and getting involved in policy work and community development.
Allan Rodriguez, a USDA spokesperson, said Thursday that the project was only “tentatively selected” and that the agency was aware of the tribe’s concerns.
He said that before any money is sent out, the USDA would be speaking with both parties in the coming months “to finalize the scope and funding levels” and to try to resolve the tribe’s concerns.
“An ethical and legal duty”
Earlier this month, the USDA awarded the $20 million grant to help fund Forterra’s Forest to Home project, based on an application by the nonprofit with a number of partners, including the Snoqualmie Tribe, Snohomish County and the city of Tacoma.
The idea of the project is to harvest timber with sustainable methods on lands owned by partners like the tribe, manufacture the timber into superstrong wood panels and use the panels to build affordable housing.
Forterra, in its grant application, estimated the project would cost about $500 million over 10 years and said it had already raised $215 million in “social impact capital, low interest loans, grants and philanthropy.”
It said it would harvest enough timber to build up to 1,000 housing units for “underserved communities” in Tacoma and Tukwila and rural Roslyn and Hamilton.
Federal funding would come from a nearly $3 billion USDA program intended to fund more climate-friendly farming, ranching and timber projects.
Forterra celebrated the approval of its grant application with an announcement two weeks ago at a community center in the historically Black Hilltop neighborhood of Tacoma, where some of the housing is planned.
“This grant will allow us to have climate-smart commodities that tie together our most rural communities and Indigenous and traditional environmental knowledge with the heart and soul of neighborhoods like Hilltop,” Forterra President and CEO Michelle Connor said then.
“USDA wanted these proposals to consider equity and Forest to Home is a great example of an applicant working with partners to achieve that goal,” USDA Undersecretary Robert Bonnie added at the time.
But the Snoqualmie Tribe is no longer backing the grant application. In his letter to Bonnie at the USDA, de los Angeles said the tribe had to obtain a copy of the application through a third party because Forterra wouldn’t share the application unless the tribe signed a nondisclosure agreement.
“We have serious concerns that Forterra’s grant application contains multiple unauthorized misrepresentations of fact, as well as false representations of commitments allegedly made by our tribe, and apparently impossible claims made regarding promised outcomes from the resources invested,” de los Angeles wrote.
The application said the Forest to Home project would include timber harvested from the Snoqualmie Tribe Ancestral Forest — 12,000 acres in the Tolt River Watershed, which the tribe recently acquired.
The tribe was initially excited about the grant, thinking it would provide support with “conservation thinning” and help the tribe steward its ancestral lands, de los Angeles wrote.
“The Tribe is willingly jeopardizing its ability to receive these financial resources by speaking out about Forterra’s actions,” but has “an ethical and legal duty” to do so, de los Angeles wrote.
“Unsustainable and irresponsible”
In his letter, de los Angeles said Forterra’s proposal in the USDA application to use harvests from Snoqualmie lands to manufacture 20,000 cubic meters of timber products per year “would be unsustainable and irresponsible” and said the volume was never discussed with the tribe.
He said the tribe can harvest no more than one-eighth of that volume and “has never made any commitments to Forterra or anyone else to entirely strip our Forest of important cultural resources.”
And, according to de los Angeles, Forterra told the USDA that the tribe would provide nearly $1.5 million in “match funding,” although the tribe had no knowledge of that and didn’t agree to it.
Additionally, de los Angeles’ letter says the tribe wasn’t aware that the grant application’s “dominant narrative” would present the harvesting of the tribe’s timber as necessary to rebuild “multiple disadvantaged or suffering communities to whom Forterra had made unilateral promises.”
The other partners in the Forest to Home project include the town of Darrington in Snohomish County, where Forterra is involved in plans to create a wood manufacturing center with many local jobs; and the city of Tacoma, where Forterra is involved in plans to develop affordable housing, among others.
The tribe is concerned that Forterra’s commitments in the grant application to other partners “may also be misleading” and that other communities may have been tokenized.
“Seeing those deserving communities’ restoration and revitalization tied to commitments from the Tribe that the Tribe was never asked to make, and resource extraction from Tribal land the Tribe never agreed to and could never deliver, caused our Tribe great distress,” de los Angeles wrote. “As a people who have suffered greatly from unfulfilled promises, we have compassion and empathy for everyone who may have been misled by Forterra.”
In her response letter, Birnbaum said Forterra is receiving the tribe’s concerns “with great seriousness.” The board chair said the organization’s goal with the grant application “was to bring additional resources to the essential climate work” of its partners.
“We encourage and are open to discussing any path forward that would facilitate the funding and execution of this critical work,” Birnbaum wrote, adding, “Grant applications are complex and we are committed to understanding, learning from and improving our process.”