The Columbia River Gorge is the only place in the world where a mighty river crashes through the entirety of a mountain range.
We go about our lives as a fairly utilitarian species. Land, water, and air are typically seen as tools to provide for us rather than inspire us. But then there are those special places that transcend, that cause us to act against our self-interest. Nature photographer Louie Schwartzberg said in a TED talk, “Beauty and seduction are nature’s tool for survival because we protect what we fall in love with.” The Columbia Gorge is such a place.
This 292,000-acre federally protected national scenic area encompassing parts of Oregon and Washington is, to my knowledge, the only place in the world where a mighty river crashes through the entirety of a mountain range. The reason is simple: the river was there first. As the Cascade Mountains rose up five million years ago, the Columbia River continued to diligently carve through the landscape. The Columbia Gorge would have simply been the Columbia Valley were it not for cataclysmic Ice Age floods 12,000 years ago that transformed the V-shaped valley into a U-shaped gorge. The floods left the Gorge with the world’s largest concentration of waterfalls, leaving this sea-level passage through a mountain range as beautiful as it is unique.
As the entrance of the Columbia Gorge sits just 20 miles from downtown Portland, 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-force winds through its corridor even as Portlanders feel a just a breeze. But it wasn’t just logistics that saved this place. On numerous occasions over the last century, development schemes were proposed as access improved and in almost every instance, preservation prevailed.
In the early 1900s, when the Columbia River Highway was under construction, a Portland businessman named Charles Coopey concocted a scheme called the Columbia Highlands Scenic Homes Company. Its stated goal was to improve the “scenic holdings” of a natural area with such things as the world’s tallest elevator leading to a golf course, polo grounds, and a hotel 2,000 feet above the river. All of these “improvements” would be powered by electricity drawn from a 40-foot dam at the base of one of the Gorge’s most iconic waterfalls.
Fortunately, a Portland timber baron who had a soft spot for keeping Gorge trees standing eventually bought the property and donated it, along with hundreds of more forested acres, for preservation purposes.
Decades later, new access into the Gorge created more development threats. This time, it was in the form of a proposed bridge. To anyone who understood land use and how residential sprawl worked, the building of the Interstate 205 bridge in east Portland in the late 1970s meant that subdivisions would begin working their way east into the Gorge. The one person bound and determined to stop that was John Yeon.
John Yeon was the eldest son of John B. Yeon, a successful Portland businessman who, for $1 a year, served as the roadmaster for the construction of the Columbia River Highway. The younger John’s passion for conservation shone through early when at the age of 19 he bought Chapman Point, a beautiful promontory on the Oregon coast, to stop development and preserve the view at Ecola Beach State Park. He held the property for another six decades before it became part of the Oregon State Parks system. And despite no formal training, John Yeon became one of the Pacific Northwest’s preeminent architects of the 20th century. But John’s heart was always in the Gorge where his father built that magnificent highway.
When Bonneville Dam was on the drawing table in the early 1930s, Portlanders, trying to one up Seattle, called for selling the dam’s power based on proximity to the dam, meaning the closer your city or business was to the dam, the cheaper the power would be. Some Gorge interests seized on this, proclaiming that the Gorge could be become “the Pittsburgh of the West” with steel and aluminum mills surrounding the dam. John called for uniform pricing and used his own funds to travel to Washington, D.C. to lobby to protect the area around the dam. Eventually uniform pricing won the day.
By the late 1970s, John was desperate for some form of federal protection and felt the Gorge was worthy of becoming a national park. 1979 seemed to be the year the stars aligned. The National Park Service, at John’s urging, decided to conduct a study to determine if the Gorge was suitable for designation as a national scenic area. And with the I-205 bridge construction underway, John saw both opportunity and threat in front of him. He needed to find an individual to lead a massive effort to federally protect the Columbia Gorge and he knew he wasn’t that person. John had a notoriously quick temper and was a perfectionist who left others withering from his criticism.
It was then that John learned of a Portland woman who was a city tennis champion, amateur Gorge botanist, and hiking enthusiast. Nancy Russell was also a stay-at-home mom with four kids. She had no political or fundraising experience. But she knew the Gorge, she had a passion for saving it, and she had a tenacity that extended well beyond the tennis court. John went to great lengths to court Nancy. He invited her and her husband Bruce to the Shire, his beautifully landscaped property across from Multnomah Falls. He scheduled a dinner but abruptly cancelled. He rescheduled and cancelled again.
But third time was the charm and the three of them had a dinner on the lawn, using antique trays and fine china. And as they spoke, the setting sun cast a pink hue on the Gorge walls and a full moon began to rise above the falls. Nancy then understood the cancellations. John was creating the perfect setting, the perfect light, to ask Nancy to take on a monumental task of leading an effort to protect the Columbia Gorge. She said yes and John taught Nancy about land aesthetics, how less is more, and how parks can rejuvenate the souls as well as the bodies of those who venture into nature. He also helped her understand the fierce political buzzsaw she would be stepping into.
In the fall of 1980, the odds looked good for making the Columbia Gorge a national park. Friends of the Columbia Gorge was founded. The two most powerful Pacific Northwest senators, Washington’s Scoop Jackson and Warren Magnuson, were both national parks advocates. President Jimmy Carter had created several national parks and his Secretary of Interior Cecil Andrus was born in the Hood River Valley just outside the Gorge.
In the fall of 1980, Secretary Andrus told Friends of the Columbia Gorge that if Jimmy Carter won the election, they would start working on a Gorge national park in January 1981. That didn’t happen. Ronald Reagan defeated Carter and Reagan replaced Cecil Andrus with James Watt.
The idea of a national park was all but dead and Friends could have folded up its tent and gone home. But it didn’t. The nonprofit dug in for the long haul.
John and Nancy continued to work together and used John’s Shire property to lobby elected officials. But their partnership began to fray. While both of them wanted a national park, Nancy was a pragmatist and the political tea leaves were saying that if a national scenic area was possible, it would be under the U.S. Forest Service and not the National Park Service. Senators Jackson and Magnuson were now gone and Senator Mark Hatfield, a Forest Service ally, was the key to passing any legislation. When Friends supported legislation calling for U.S. Forest Service management, John was devastated.
Nancy, however, would not let perfect be the enemy of good. She worked tirelessly in the years to come and in the fall of 1986 her opportunity finally came. Senator Hatfield used his power on the Appropriations Committee to convince every U.S. senator to support the legislation. John Yeon, perhaps knowing what was coming, wrote to a friend that even though he did not support the legislation, he would not oppose it, as Nancy had her “army of supporters” and, in his words, “I have a constituency of none.”
The final power play came when the legislation landed on President Reagan’s desk and the president was surrounded by advisors recommending a veto. According to a conversation I had with Senator Hatfield’s wife, the president called Senator Hatfield one evening, telling him he planned to veto the legislation. Senator Hatfield listened patiently and told Reagan that he completely understood and that as president he needed to do what he thought was right. As they ended their conversation, the senator casually mentioned that his Appropriation Committee was backed up with numerous funding requests and that it was quite possible that some of the president’s priorities might just be held up indefinitely.
At the time President Reagan’s top priority was his Star Wars Defense Missile program, a multi-billion-dollar project, and funding it without Senator Hatfield’s support would be nearly impossible. The senator graciously wished the president a good night, his message subtly but clearly delivered. A few days later, President Reagan signed the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act, one of the few pieces of environmental legislation he signed in his eight years in office.
John Yeon would live another eight years and while he and Nancy remained cordial, the vision and indeed fame of the younger woman eclipsed that of the older man. But having known Nancy for ten years and having read everything I could about that time, I will tell you that without John Yeon, there would have been no Nancy Russell as we know of her today. And without Nancy Russell, there would be no Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Their teamwork lasted only a few years, but their impact will last for generations.
Each one of us interprets the benefits of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area through our own lens. But I believe that—personal interpretations aside—there are some universal truths. When the National Scenic Area Act passed, many local residents felt put upon by the federal legislation. That’s understandable: it wasn’t their idea and they didn’t ask for it. However, I have witnessed a transformation in two decades that may be best summed up in the words of local resident who passed away several years ago.
An adamant opponent of the National Scenic Area, the local resident agreed to serve on the Columbia River Gorge Commission once the National Scenic Area was in place. He told me he joined the commission somewhat as an adversary and at a minimum to keep it in check. But during his tenure on the commission, his mindset shifted from seeing this designation as something put upon him to something that created a buffer to prevent, in his words, “the hordes of Portland” from descending upon the Gorge. Once viewed as an exclusionary club, the scenic area in the end was instead recognized as a shield to protect and enhance the aspects of the Columbia Gorge that he and other residents loved.
Over the years, I’ve been asked many times what makes the Gorge so magical. And while there many things about the Gorge that I love, there’s something truly remarkable about the wonder and passion it inspires. Places like this deserve special protection and thanks to countless passionate advocates like John and Nancy, who worked to create the scenic area almost 40 years ago, today the Columbia Gorge is such a place.
As executive director of Friends of the Columbia Gorge, Kevin Gorman oversees all activities of the nonprofit organization, as well as its land trust, which currently owns 1,400 acres of land. Kevin joined the organization in 1998 and during his tenure Friends has grown notably. He was previously the associate director of Oregon Natural Resources Council (now Oregon Wild) and has served as board president for the Coalition of Oregon Land Trusts and EarthShare Oregon, a workplace giving organization. Prior to his nonprofit adventures, Kevin was the creative director of an advertising agency in Detroit, Michigan.
Header image of the Columbia River Gorge including Crown Point by Greg Lief. Photo of Kevin Gorman courtesy Friends of the Columbia Gorge.