Martin Goebel: Visionary, Mediator, Alumnus

Posted by Renee Magyar on May 8, 2014

Sustainable Northwest's founder, Martin Goebel, was featured in OSU College of Forestry's Spring issue of Focus Magazine.

Martin Goebel on the OSU Jumbotron during the 2013 homecoming.

By Bryan Bernart

Spring 2014 Focus Magazine

"I was born and raised in Mexico by a Tillamook, Oregon mother," begins Martin Goebel '79, an internationally renowned environmental mediator with a ready smile. "My grandfather, John Edwards, had a small timber operation in Tillamook. There's still a creek, a road, and butte all named after him. I seem to have forestry in my blood."

He also remembers the green, natural landscapes around his childhood home on the southern edges of Mexico City and how they disappeared almost overnight due to urbanization. "It really disturbed me that so much beautiful forest land disappeared so quickly," he says. 

A naturalist during his childhood (I used to run around collecting things), he vowed to study something to do with the environment when he grew up. Goebel eventually found a degree path that involved forestry and the environment in what was then the Forest Management program at Oregon State. Following his graduation, he began a kind of ''world tour' of forestry careers, working as a forester in Mexico and Germany before transitioning into international conservation, where he worked for the World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy and attended graduate school at Texas A&M. 

When Goebel returned to Oregon in 1994, "there was this raging battle going on between the environmental community, the local community, the forest industry, and the government, all over multiple issues," he recalls. "The same general set of concerns pervaded eastern Oregon, just as in South America, where I had been working previously." This realization sparked a fresh approach to problem-solving, which is embodied in Sustainable Northwest, the non-profit organization Goebel founded 20 years ago to tackle problems that arise at the intersection of communities, economies, and ecosystems. "It became obvious to me that if you don?t solve three kinds of problems, you can?t have sustainable environments, forests, or anything else,? Goebel notes. These problems are (1) how to sustainably manage resources; (2) how to manage resources in a way that meets human needs, economically and otherwise; and (3) how to manage resources in a way that is supported by society. The highly regarded organization initially struggled to gain trust and establish credibility.

"In the early days, we had to invite ourselves in," he says. "I had to explain that I wanted to provide solutions in gridlocked situations, where no progress was being made by any side of a conflict." This was particularly challenging in rural areas that had, in Goebel's words, "seen parades of NPOs come through town, mostly to alienate them and, in their perception, shut down the forest or cattle industry for the sake of the environment." Once it became clear that Goebel and his growing team at Sustainable Northwest were providing meaningful solutions for multiple parties in any given disagreement, "the calls started coming in." Their job is to find ways to listen to people, and also to ensure they hear each other, Goebel explains. "Common ground exists, even if it's only this big," he says, forming the shape of a dime with his hands. 

The organization is now part of a large 'family of collaborators,' a group of like-minded yet diverse NPOs that work together on topics including marketing and policy development. "An important part of collaboration is storytelling, and we work to relate 'good news' stories, especially to urban places, where people may not have deep knowledge of the environment," Goebel says. "There's still a wide perception that forestry is bad, as a generality; we are making progress to change that." Goebel, who was honored as the 2013 College of Forestry Alumni Fellow during Oregon State's Homecoming in October, reflected on his own time as a forestry student during a visit to Peavy Hall. "I wish now that I had learned more about the social dimension of forestry," he says. "I learned the technical sides of resources management and forest management, but not how to talk to and listen to people. If you can't do that, you won't get very far, especially if your goal is to help them."

He believes that Dean Thomas Maness's focus on systems analysis, organizational development, and the study of institutions will be useful to today's graduates. Asked for advice for current students, Goebel says, "You should get experience outside of academia while you're still in school. With knowledge of how what you're learning relates to the real world, you'll know what questions to ask your professors. More experience can only benefit you." As for his own future plans, Goebel has turned Sustainable Northwest over to his successor, John Audley, and is beginning a new venture, Moebius Partners, an environmentally centered organization dedicated to advising philanthropic groups. 

See the full Spring 2014 issue of Focus here.