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Review: Bowen Blair’s “A Force for Nature”

“Nancy Russell was one of those great heroines whose quest to save the Columbia Gorge in Oregon serves as an inspirational tale that embodies the best of American grit and determination.”

Hikers are among the greatest recipients of the gift of conservation. Those who engaged in the long and arduous struggle, an intense journey in and of itself, to conserve our nation’s most pristine and beautiful nature preserves have given to posterity countless joys and memories. The struggle and journey of hiking are, as someone who is an avid hiker, just as important and fulfilling as the destination.

Everyone is familiar with America’s premier national parks. Yet there are many smaller national treasures that exist in their preserved state thanks to the steadfast efforts of previous generations of conservationists. Nancy Russell was one of those great heroines whose quest to save the Columbia Gorge in Oregon serves as an inspirational tale that embodies the best of American grit and determination.

Russell was one of many who fell in love with the “botanical laboratory” of the Columbia Gorge and its “thousand wildflower species.” Bowen Blair, the author who tells Russell’s story, aptly reminds us of the mountainous river valley that caught Russell’s eye: “The Columbia Gorge is a place of complexity and unreconciled conflict—conceived by fire and flood, alluring in beauty and profit, cherished and exploited.” Perhaps it is fitting that so many of America’s great naturalistic preserves, from the Appalachian Trail in the east to Yellowstone and Yosemite in the west, to the Columbia Gorge in Oregon, are instantiations of America’s own history which is complex and born of conflict, “conceived by fire and flood, alluring in beauty and profit, cherished and exploited.” It is an American tale. It is America’s tale.

Russell grew up in hard times. She was born in the midst of the Great Depression, lived through the austerity imposed on many families because of World War II, then witnessed the post-war population boom that struck the Pacific Coast, Oregon included, which made the Columbia Gorge a center of change and transformation. Although she was teased because of her family’s early financial hardships, she persevered and became a fighter through the challenges of her formative years, which would later prove integral to the Gorge’s protection. In school, she also grew to love the English Romantics—always a good choice, especially for anyone who has a love of nature and the pastoral idyll.

Before Russell became the leading champion of the Gorge’s conservation, two women of philosophically different dispositions led the Columbia Gorge commission which worked in concert with the state government over conservationist matters: Gertrude Glutsch Jensen and Nani Warren. Jensen was a feisty crusader who often clashed with Oregon politicians but was important in conserving the region during an era of suburban and economic sprawl and development. Warren was a free-enterprise Republican operative who saw untapped pro-family and pro-growth economic potential in the Gorge. She loved the natural beauty of the area for personal reasons but also wanted the Gorge to become a hub for growing families. Moreover, the Gorge commission was more an advisory board than anything else, and the commission gave more of a façade of conservation than real conservation. These differing visions and the limited role of the commission meant that the Gorge was still in a precarious position by the 1970s.

Fast-forward to 1979, Russell and her husband, Bruce, received a phone call from John Yeon. Yeon had been spearheading the fight to conserve the Columbia Gorge for decades behind the smoke and mirrors of media politics and knew Russell had become a well-known “love[r] of Gorge history and [its] wildflowers.” Yeon needed all the help he could get to ensure finally the Gorge’s naturalistic preservation rather than developmental and suburban exploitation. And his timely and fateful call to the Russells to enlist Nancy’s spirited help in preserving the Gorge becomes the heroic story Blair tells us in the rest of his fast-paced and gripping narrative.

The fight to preserve the Gorge had its roots in the complicated nature of Oregon politics and economic development that came to the state during and after the Second World War. The Columbia River provided hydroelectricity for factories that were instrumental in the American war effort between 1941 and 1945. The Gorge was also nestled within the most coveted timber lands on the West Coast. Furthermore, the post-war suburban boom was beginning to touch the natural countryside where the Gorge was located. Suddenly, the few property owners before the explosion of economic and suburban development were “sitting on gold mines,” and local realtors were estimating that “a completed bridge [across the river] would add $7,000-$8,000 of value to every house east of Vancouver.” The rush was on to transform the naturalistic idyll into an economic powerhouse that could make a handful of people very rich.

What Blair reveals in this struggle for the Gorge’s future is how political, social, and economic forces were moving toward development while a small and passionate band of volunteers and Gorge lovers were fighting for its preservation. The two sides inevitably clashed. And in this clash, Russell eventually inserted herself in a growing and more energetic role. At first, she was a volunteer; Russell was a respected but inexperienced voice that John Yeon hoped would bring more attention to the Gorge’s conservationist cause with her love for the area. In time, however, she became more than a volunteer; she became the Gorge’s most passionate advocate and defender.

We like to think conservation is a serene topic, one that would not elicit backroom deals and intense conflict. On the contrary, Russell’s insertion into the heart of the fight for the Columbia Gorge brought her into the maelstrom of Oregon politics, Washington state politics, and Washington, D.C. politics. In the rough and tumble world of localism and national politics, a vast array of personalities and forces were determined to either crush Russell and the conservation effort or support the conservation effort for political favors. The gift that the Columbia Gorge is today was not saved by angelic bipartisanship but by the grit and determination of Russell, Yeon, and the Gorge’s few but passionate advocates.

The steps taken to defend the Gorge began with local leaders, moving up to the state level, then moving into the corridors of the United States Capitol. Local leaders, the Portland business community, and Governor Victor Atiyeh opposed the strict-conservationist approach; what they wanted, especially Governor Atiyeh, was a commercially-viable, tourist-friendly preserve—one that would have the façade of conservation but really be about development and bringing in money for the state. However, the Gorge’s conservation purists pointed to a history of bistate failures in scenic preservation like with Lake Tahoe between California and Nevada as the most recent example of the insufficiency of such an approach. The Gorge’s conservationist crusaders sought federal protection as the only true safeguard since a half-baked compromise would lead, in time, to the commercialization and ultimate desecration of the Gorge. Federal protection, the conservationists argued, was needed.

This fight for federal protection brought Russell into the company of Senator Mark Hatfield, the powerful Washington, D.C. Republican and ally of newly elected President Ronald Reagan. Senator Hatfield’s interest in the Gorge’s conservation was from the purview of realpolitik, a pragmatism resulting from necessity: He was weak on conservation, a growing issue in the state of Oregon. Luckily, Russell’s determined spirit she had cultivated as a child served her well in the maelstrom of backroom wheeling and dealing. She was able to convince Hatfield to persuade a reluctant President Reagan to sign into law a bill that would ensure the Gorge’s preservation despite the President’s unease (not to mention the disagreements and reservations many other politicians had).

Blair’s engrossing narrative unveils the sweat and struggles that Russell had to trek through to save the Columbia Gorge’s beauty. The beauty that any hiker, visitor, or traveler sees today in the Gorge was not the result of a kumbaya dance but the result of grueling emotional and personal hardship and fatigue from the Gorge’s few allies who worked tirelessly and sacrificed so much because of their love of the region’s beauty. It is an inspirational story. And as an avid hiker, when I manage to visit the West Coast to walk and climb the vaunted trails and mountains of Oregon, I will know the guardian angel, Nancy Russell, that made it all possible.

Paul Krause is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and contributed to The College Lecture Today and Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He can be found on Twitter @paul_jkrause

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