Return to Cape Horn

One sparkling morning last fall, a chartered ambulance arrived at the Portland, Oregon, home of a woman named Nancy Russell to take her on a journey to the Columbia River Gorge. The gorge—an iconic natural feature of the Pacific Northwest—had been a favorite haunt of Russell's since she began prowling its slopes in search of wildflowers 40 years earlier. In the 1970s, she spearheaded a grassroots conservation effort and founded the nonprofit Friends of the Columbia Gorge (known locally as "Friends") to fight inappropriate development and lobby for federal protection of this remarkable landscape at Portland's front door.

For the last thirty years her life, Russell was intimately involved in building one of the premier natural and recreation spaces in the Northwest—and the nation. Working sometimes alone, sometimes with partners, Russell had helped pass a landmark federal bill to protect the gorge and then helped set aside tens of thousands of acres in the region. That September day, in the final stages of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), she was returning for a last visit; she passed away only a few days later.

Stretching 85 miles eastward from the outskirts of Portland and Vancouver, Washington, the Columbia River Gorge is as spectacular as many national parks. In the western part of the gorge, outside Portland, glacial runoff from the pointed peak of Mount Hood swells creeks and streams that cascade in waterfalls down sheer basalt cliffs. Out east, where the gorge opens up between Hood River and The Dalles, huge sloping hills explode with wildflowers in spring and summer—purple shooting stars and wild irises, yellow camas and balsamroots, a kaleidoscope of lupines.

But the wilderness character of the gorge was compromised long ago by commerce. Separating the states of Oregon and Washington, the gorge contains a major east-west travel corridor, with a railroad, interstate highway, and major shipping lanes. It also encompasses two federal dams, a national forest, and several small cities and towns. For decades conservationists looked at the gorge's disparate state, local, and federal jurisdictions and eventually concluded that the only comprehensive conservation solution would have to come from Washington, D.C.

As early as 1916 and from then on about every decade, Congress considered one or another proposal to regulate growth and protect the gorge's most important natural and recreational resources for the growing Northwest. But all had failed until Nancy Russell came along. And while no one claims that she single-handedly created the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, it would not have happened without her. Her experience illustrates how a person with vision, dedication, and drive can protect a beloved place, says Bowen Blair, senior vice president and national director of projects for The Trust for Public Land. "If Nancy taught us anything, it was to keep fighting to protect what's important."

Blair should know. In the 1980s, just a few years out of law school, he was recruited by Russell to serve as executive director of the Friends group, beginning a close professional and personal relationship that would last until her death. They were tennis partners for years, and after Blair joined TPL, they worked together to help complete 80 conservation projects that protect 17,000 acres in the gorge.

"Nancy was one of those rare people who in addition to having the passion, steel, and selflessness necessary to lead a movement, had the drive to succeed," Blair told the more than 600 people who gathered for Russell's memorial service last October.

Catalysts To Action

Nancy Russell began her conservation career as a homemaker who loved the outdoors, in particular, botanizing. She and her husband, Bruce, had five children, and when she wasn't busy tending them, Nancy raised plants and organized a conservation program for the Portland Garden Club. In a 2008 profile, The Oregonian writer Katy Muldoon penned that Nancy would "put her children on the school bus, race to the gorge, hike and hunt flowers all day, then bolt home in time to gather her kids and get dinner on the table." Often she explored the gorge with such authorities as Barbara Robinson from the Native Plant Society of Oregon and Russ Jolley, author of Wildflowers of the Columbia Gorge: A Comprehensive Field Guide (Oregon Historical Society Press, 1988).

In the 1970s, a proposed bridge across the Columbia River north of Portland threatened to spread suburban sprawl to the Washington side of the gorge, where development rules were much more lax than in Oregon. Once again, it seemed clear that a federal solution was the route to protection. Joining with others who loved the gorge, Nancy asked Oregon's then senator Mark Hatfield for help. Hatfield told them that he'd push for special federal status if they could organize supporters from both sides of the river and both ends of the gorge to stand behind him.

At about the same time, in August 1979, the late architect and preservationist John Yeon invited Nancy and Bruce to his estate near Skamania, Washington, overlooking the gorge. Knowing what he was going to ask Nancy, Yeon carefully planned this dinner for a night when a full moon would rise over 620-foot Multnomah Falls, one of the best-known attractions on the Oregon side of the gorge and dramatically visible from the Yeon estate. Nancy later described the evening as "superb." As sunset washed the gorge walls pink and the moon appeared above the falls, Yeon urged Russell to lead a fight for federal protection.

Russell soon founded the Friends group and recruited a high-powered board of directors, including two Oregon ex-governors, Tom McCall and Bob Straub; ex-Washington governor Dan Evans; and Mike Lindberg, a Portland city commissioner. "With all of the heavy hitters we had on board from the beginning, Nancy certainly started with a bang," says Kevin Gorman, the group's executive director role since 1998. Aubrey Russell, Nancy's son, remembers her first few months of organizing Friends as intense. She pounded the pavement for money and responded to each sizable donation with a handwritten note of thanks. Gradually funds began to come in, and she set about working to protect key properties throughout the gorge.

One important piece of land Nancy was not able to protect in those early years was a basalt bluff on the Washington side, in the western part of the gorge known as Cape Horn. Driving along Washington Route 14 in 1981, she spotted signs advertising 16 lots for sale there, in a development that was to be known as Rim View Estates. Russell was outraged. Not only was Cape Horn one of her favorite spots—she and Jolley had sought wildflowers there for years—but its lofty eminence commanded views up and down the river, making it the logical place for a grand public overlook similar to much-loved Chanticleer and Crown Points on the Oregon side.

In 1987, Russell extended to TPL a no-interest loan to buy the Rim View lots for later conveyance to the U.S. Forest Service—an early transaction in what would become a lasting partnership. Unfortunately, several lots had already been sold by then, and one had been developed. She would return to Cape Horn again and again, frustrated that this single house precluded the kind of public use the location deserved. And she would come back one last time in the days before her death to celebrate a particularly gratifying victory for public access.

A Powerful Partnership For Conservation

Many more protection efforts followed. East of Lyle, Washington, Russell purchased land for the sole purpose of creating a public path, now known as the Cherry Orchard Trail. When the effort to open the Mosier Tunnels on the Historic Columbia River Highway to pedestrians and nonmotorized vehicles hit a funding snafu, the Russells quietly donated $500,000.

Her actions occasionally sparked controversy. Some gorge residents resented a Portlander working for federal protection and public ownership of the gorge's most prized scenic lands. It was not uncommon to see a pickup truck sporting a bumper sticker that read "Save the Gorge from Nancy Russell." Once someone appeared at her door and verbally threatened her. Another time, after testifying at a hearing in Washington's Skamania County, she discovered that someone had punctured three of her car's tires.

Aubrey remembers his mother spending most of his teen years lecturing, lobbying, testifying, and fundraising. "She was impassioned and consumed by it, but in the best way possible," he says. "There were moments when I thought she was nuts, but she was determined in her belief that the gorge was worthy of some sort of national protection. It was inspiring." Authorized by Congress in November 1986, the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act designated more than 292,000 acres as federally regulated land. The legislation prohibited development in certain areas and established regulations that would discourage sprawl and encourage protection of scenic properties. Over the following years, under Russell's leadership, Friends became the leading public advocate for sound policy and regulation in the gorge, while Russell herself functioned as a one-woman land trust. With her husband's financial backing, she bought for protection every scenic gorge property she could get her hands on—a total of 33 parcels and more than 600 acres.

And she forged a partnership with TPL to work toward acquisition of the most scenic and endangered properties in the gorge by state and federal public land agencies, chiefly the U.S. Forest Service. "Nancy believed that the ultimate protection was public ownership," says Bowen Blair. "She served as TPL's scout, knew the best properties, and would turn us loose on them. She inspired us, introduced us to donors, and would occasionally fund the work herself."

"In every project there was a constellation of partners, and in every one of those constellations, the brightest star was Nancy," notes Alan Front, TPL's senior vice president of federal affairs and public policy. "From the very beginning, we at TPL were foot soldiers, but she really orchestrated and inspired the campaign to protect these lands."

Return To Cape Horn

Through 20 years of accomplishment, Nancy always remembered Cape Horn, the building lots there that got away, and the house that blocked public access to some of the best views from the gorge's Washington side. Finally, through negotiations by TPL, Friends of the Columbia Gorge last spring succeeded in buying the only house ever built at Rim View Estates, and over the next few months, experts skilled at disassembling buildings and recycling their materials removed the home.

By then Russell's declining health kept her in bed much of the time, and the effort proved to be her final victory. It had a satisfying symmetry that recalled the early days of her fight for the gorge. Not only did it complete Russell's partial victory at Cape Horn, but also the project was funded with a bequest from Norman Yeon, brother of John Yeon, who on a moonlit night many years before had put Russell's passion to work.

Russell would die within weeks, but not before her son Aubrey chartered the ambulance that brought her back to Cape Horn on a stretcher to celebrate the demolition of the house and protection of the land. From this prominence at the gorge's western end, they gazed back up the river over the land she had worked so hard to protect.

"We sat there for a while, just taking it all in, and then I asked her, 'Mom, where do you want to go next?'" Aubrey remembers. "She looked up at me, smiling, and firmly but quietly replied, 'East,' to see the rest of the land she knew and loved."

In the months and weeks after her death, eulogies for Russell sprouted like the wildflowers she loved. Friends of the Columbia Gorge received hundreds of tributes. Jim Desmond, Portland's director of regional parks and green spaces, told The Oregonian that Russell has peers in the pantheon of conservation legends, but they are people like Henry David Thoreau and John Muir.

"Every time someone takes a great hike or bike ride or drive through the gorge, they have Nancy Russell to thank for it," he was quoted as saying.

At the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center south of The Dalles, Russell also is remembered fondly. "We needed someone with the patience and energy and integrity to save the gorge before it got spoiled," says executive director Carolyn Purcell. "The gorge is what it is because of the work Nancy Russell did."

And while her own work is done, its momentum will go on long into the future. Stronger than ever, the Friends of the Columbia Gorge will continue to advocate for regulations and planning that protect the gorge's character. And TPL will continue to work with the Friends group and with partners, donors, and legislators to protect the gorge's most scenic and vulnerable landscapes.

"This area will continue to grow, and people will continue to come to the gorge, both as visitors and residents," says TPL's Bowen Blair. "It's now up to us to protect the gorge's scenic beauty and natural resources—to carry on the work Nancy started."

Matt Villano, a freelance writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California, last wrote for Land&People about protecting land at Maho Bay in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Read more about him at