More than 40 years ago, Friends led the fight to protect the Gorge by helping to create the National Scenic Area. We’ve been working ever since to safeguard the Gorge and make sure its natural wonders will be preserved for generations to come. But threats to the Gorge and efforts to protect it far predate Friends' founding.
Growing population, growing development threats
Since the 1800s, when Oregon settlers displaced Native American inhabitants and traveled westward along the Columbia River, access and development have threatened the Columbia Gorge. Located so closely to the growing cities of Portland and Vancouver, the Gorge would have been ripe for development in the late 1800s and early 1900s had it not been for its inaccessibility and fierce weather that can bring hurricane winds through its corridor.
The opening of the Columbia River Highway in the early 1900s, however, introduced the public to the Gorge’s natural wonders and increased access to places such as Multnomah Falls. In the decades since, developers proposed schemes including the world’s tallest elevator leading to a golf course, polo grounds, a hotel 2,000 feet over the river, and a 40-foot dam at the base of one of the Gorge’s most iconic waterfalls. The iconic Beacon Rock was once eyed as a site to be mined and quarried.
Each time, local conservationists fought off these dangers, yet successful railroad and dam construction exerted greater pressure on the Gorge. And strong state or federal protections for the Gorge had yet to materialize.
Voices emerge for Gorge protection
In the late 1970s, the pressure intensified as Interstate 205 bridge construction and new subdivision proposals threatened to bring Portland and Vancouver’s sprawl to the Gorge. In response, a growing chorus of community voices called for the federal government to act if the respective state leaders in Olympia and Salem would not.
The Columbia Gorge Coalition, a small group of Gorge activists led by Chuck Williams, a Native American with historical ties to the Gorge and former official with Friends of the Earth, called for the National Park Service to explore creating a national park in the Gorge. They were joined in this fight by a growing group of community leaders resolved to convince the federal government to play a role in protecting the Gorge.
John Yeon, a well-known architect and son of the Columbia River Highway’s roadmaster, had worked on numerous efforts to protect the Gorge's natural treasures over his career. John joined with other local activists in urging the National Park Service to extend federal protection to the Gorge. And in 1979, the Park Service issued a report identifying several threats—logging, industrial and residential development, mining, and energy development—to the Gorge and its resources.
But with the political winds changing in the country and pressing development threats still looming on the horizon, John recognized that even greater public support would be needed to permanently protect the Columbia Gorge.
A monumental achievement
Enter Nancy Russell, a Portland mother, hiker, and amateur botanist who explored the Gorge searching for wildflowers. Nancy had no political or fundraising experience, yet she was persistent and persuasive. John recruited her to lead the Gorge’s protection effort. In 1980, they and fellow conservationists formed a new group: Friends of the Columbia Gorge.
By that time, odds looked good for making the Gorge a national park. Yet the 1980 presidential election and the Reagan Administration’s anti-environment agenda brought opposition to the national park proposal. Friends retained the vision but shifted the goal to a bi-state, congressionally designated area.
The task of building support was overwhelming. The movement was contentious, with some residents opposing federal protection and public ownership of Gorge lands. Nancy and her allies began by fundraising, establishing a 31-member steering committee, and cultivating 150 influential supporters including former Oregon and Washington governors and county commissioners from both sides of the river.
By 1981, Friends had begun local and federal lobbying work to establish the Gorge as a national scenic area. They recruited Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield, a Forest Service ally, who was the key to passing any legislation in Congress.
Friends staff, board, volunteers, and community allies worked tirelessly in the years to come, and in the fall of 1986, Friends' opportunity finally came. Senator Hatfield used his power on the Appropriations Committee to convince every senator to support the legislation, then convinced President Regan to reconsider his planned veto. On November 17, 1986, Reagan signed the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act, one of the few pieces of environmental legislation he signed.
The National Scenic Area Act’s passage was monumental, creating the nation’s largest scenic area and protecting 292,000 acres of land. It also prohibited industrial, commercial, and subdivision development in certain areas, halted large-scale clearcutting on federal forest land, and prohibited energy development.
A legacy of protection
In the year's following the creation of the Scenic Area, Friends became the Gorge’s leading public advocate. The organization transformed public opinion from viewing the Scenic Area Act as a burden to a shield to protect and enhance the Gorge. And over the subsequent decades, Friends’ scope, size, and reach greatly expanded.
Today, Friends includes more than 6,000 members, as well as our own land trust and robust conservation advocacy, legal, hiking, and youth education programs. We’ve successfully defeated numerous proposed reckless large-scale developments in the Gorge; worked to strengthen state laws to protect the Gorge and the communities that live there from irresponsible fossil fuel rail transport; and won important legal victories to protect Gorge scenic resources and support key treaty rights of tribal partners.
Some of our accomplishments, such as permanently protecting more than 1,600 acres of land, are visible. Yet much of our work is unseen — there are no sprawling suburbs, power plants, strip malls, or outlet stores. But our work today wouldn't be possible without the foresight, effort, and passion of the many across the Pacific Northwest who worked to take vision of permanent federal protections for the wonder of the Gorge from aspiration to reality.