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National Scenic Area 35th Birthday: Highlighting a Long Career of Gorge Advocacy

National Scenic Area 35th Birthday: Highlighting a Long Career of Gorge Advocacy
The view from Cape Horn in the 1980s, before the Cape Horn landscape was conserved for public use. (photographer: John Yeon)
By Kevin Gorman
Executive Director
November 18, 2021

Thirty-five years ago this month, November 1986, was an auspicious time for an upstart nonprofit organization called Friends of the Columbia Gorge.

A mere six years after its founding, Friends achieved what many thought was unachievable: creating the bi-state Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area to bring protection and uniformity to federal, tribal, state, county, and private lands in the Columbia Gorge. What made this all the more remarkable was that this occurred within a presidential administration that was scaling back federal engagement and oversight.

While much has been written about the leadership of Friends’ Founder Nancy Russell, the person who dragged the National Scenic Area legislation across the finish line in 1986 was the Friends’ then-Executive Director Bowen Blair, Jr. Bowen was fresh out of law school when he became Friends’ second executive director, but his strategic thinking and calm demeanor masked his youth and inexperience. Like Nancy, Bowen had a fanatical focus on the goal of federal protection for the Columbia Gorge.

On this 35th anniversary of the signing of National Scenic Area, we came across this letter Bowen wrote to the Friends’ membership in early 1987. As I read it, I marveled at the calmness in the words of a 20-something young man who just achieved something that would forever change one of America’s most treasured landscapes. But the message from Bowen was clear: there was still a lot of work ahead.

Thirty-five years later, we’re fortunate that Bowen never fully left the Gorge. When he resigned as director of Friends of the Columbia Gorge, he started the Oregon office of Trust for Public Land and personally helped acquire key Gorge landscapes at Cape Horn, Rowena, and Miller Island. He joined Friends’ board and served for decades. He then shifted his attention to the Columbia River Gorge Commission and eventually served as its chair. And today, he is wrapping up a book about Nancy Russell, scheduled for release in late 2022.

There was no large 35th celebratory event this year due to the lingering impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. But we are slowly reopening our gatherings, starting with small stewardship events. We also hope to bring back our hiking program in spring 2022. There is still much to do, much to share, and I hope you will be part of that journey. Consider donating to our efforts; if you do it now through Willamette Week’s Give Guide, your gift will be matched dollar for dollar.

I hope you enjoy this look back in time and I hope you help us continue to look ahead.