The front-page headline on Nov. 18, 1986, the day after President Ronald Reagan signed the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act into law.
When the beautiful and wild Columbia Gorge faced the threat of unchecked developmental sprawl, a new group led by
Nancy Russell formed to fight for lasting protection for one of America's natural treasures.
In the early 1900s, the hidden beauty of the Columbia Gorge was discovered by the public through the construction of the Columbia River Highway. While naturalists, photographers, and civic-minded officials advocated for Gorge protection, entrepreneurs attracted to the Gorge’s unique qualities and proximity to Portland frequently proposed new developments, schemes that could have destroyed the Gorge as we know it today. This push and pull between conservation and development went on for much of the twentieth century.
By the fall of 1980, the imminent construction of suburban I-205 and what became the Glenn Jackson Bridge brought development pressures on the Gorge to a new level. A 24-lot subdivision was proposed for a site across from iconic Multnomah Falls. Members of the Oregon and Washington Gorge Commissions opposed the subdivision but as they were non-regulatory agencies, they had no power to stop the development. Concurrently, the National Park Service was conducting a study on the Columbia Gorge and among its recommendations was the establishment of the Gorge as a National Scenic Area. Its report identified the Gorge as an area of “national scenic value,” but cited unequal applications of protection efforts by Oregon and Washington. As threats and opportunities loomed on the Gorge’s horizon, missing was a citizen organization to help guide the future of the Gorge.
A game changer was needed. Fortunately, a seed had already been planted that would in time bear fruit in the form of permanent Gorge protection.
1980: Enter Nancy Russell and Friends of the Columbia GorgeNancy Russell and John Yeon at Crown Point, 1980. (Friends’ photo archive)
It is safe to say that no individual has had such a lasting and profound impact on a Pacific Northwest landscape as Nancy Russell (1932-2008) has had on the Columbia River Gorge.
Nancy Ann Neighbor grew up in Portland, OR. After receiving academic scholarships to Portland's Catlin School (now Catlin Gabel) and Scripps College in Claremont, CA, she married Bruce Russell in 1957 and raised four children: Sally, Wendy, Alison, and Aubrey. Nancy was a backpacking and wildflower enthusiast who loved the Columbia Gorge and other Northwest landscapes. Her status as an amateur tennis champion showed a competitive streak would serve her well in her most defining role.
In the late 1970s, John Yeon, well-known architect and son of the roadmaster of the Historic Columbia River Highway, was alarmed as the I-205 bridge took shape and was looking for a leader to take up the charge for federally protecting the Columbia Gorge before sprawl took hold in it. He viewed Nancy as an ally who could corral and inspire well-connected people and influential politicians, and who could advocate for the Gorge with quiet determination. On a perfect summer evening in 1979, John invited Nancy and Bruce to his property across from Multnomah Falls to “woo” Nancy into taking the lead to protect the Gorge.
The first small sprout of what would become Friends of the Columbia Gorge surfaced at a July 1980 picnic at the Shire. Here, a 38-member Committee to Save the Gorge was formed, consisting mostly of Nancy’s fellow Portland Garden Club members. Nancy and her allies faced the tough task of building support for a bi-state, congressionally designated area. The National Park Service study helped, but the Park Service soon lost some of its clout as the Reagan Administration came into office and Secretary James Watt took a much more pro-development position.
On November 18, 1980, at a publicized gathering at the Portland Garden Club, Multnomah County Executive Don Clark named four persons, including Nancy Russell, who would form an organization to promote establishing a national scenic area for the Columbia River Gorge. Though the name was not established until a few months later, this gathering is considered the beginning of Friends of the Columbia Gorge.
The press conference announcing the formation of the organization that became Friends of the Columbia Gorge, Nov. 18, 1980. From left to right: Portland Garden Club President Maggie Drake, Multnomah County Commissioner Don Clark, and Friends founder Nancy Russell. (Friends’ photo archive)
By spring 1981, Friends was already primed to be a potent political force, consisting of a 31-member steering committee and a list of 150 influential backers. The steering committee included two former Oregon governors (Tom McCall and Bob Straub), former Washington governor Dan Evans, and a number of city and county commissioners from both sides of the Columbia River.
Friends’ Early Years: The Drive for Federal Gorge Protection
These people and others gave Nancy and her allies entry points in their efforts to lobby decision makers both at home and in Washington, D.C. (the lobbying of Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield proved especially crucial, as documented by the late journalist Kathie Durbin in her book Bridging a Great Divide: The Battle for the Columbia River Gorge).
Securing passage and enactment of federal protection for the Gorge was a long, difficult process, but it was a struggle perfectly suited for Nancy, who had patience, unusually keen powers of persuasion, and a never-say-die attitude. (Watch Oregon Public Broadcasting’s 2011 program Columbia Gorge: Fight for Paradise, which explores the passage of legacy of the Scenic Area Act.)
On November 17, 1986, almost six years to the day from the announcement of the group that would become Friends, President Ronald Reagan signed (with one hand holding his nose, according to Senator Hatfield) the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act. It was one of just a few conservation bills signed into law during Reagan's presidency.
Learn About the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act
Nancy Russell’s lobbying for Gorge protection included a meeting with Vice-President George H.W. Bush, joined by fellow Gorge advocate Dave Cannard. (Friends’ photo archive)
Today, the benefits of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act are visible throughout the Gorge, particularly in the more than 41,000 acres of Gorge lands placed in public ownership. Thanks to the work of Nancy and those who joined her in what was once considered a farfetched quest, the Columbia Gorge enjoys a far greater level of protection than it did when large subdivisions could be built in one of America’s greatest natural treasures.
Under Scenic Area, Friends Carries Out Nancy Russell’s Legacy in the Gorge
Meanwhile, Nancy Russell’s organization, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, which began with a few motivated people, now includes approximately 6,000 members (including a level of support in Gorge counties that would have been unthinkable in the far more contentious 1980s), as well as its own land trust and robust conservation advocacy, legal, hiking, and youth education programs.
Thirty-five years after the late Nancy Russell set us on an uncertain but determined journey, Friends carries her example and spirit into the future.
Nancy Russell at Memaloose Meadows, 2004. (photographer: Aubrey Russell)
Read About Friends’ Major Accomplishments