The eighty-five–mile-long Columbia Gorge forms part of the border between Oregon and Washington and is one of the nation’s most historic and scenic landscapes. Many of the region’s cultural divisions boil over here—urban versus rural, west of the mountains versus east—as well as clashes over private property rights, management of public lands, and tribal treaty rights.
In the early 1980s, as a new interstate bridge linked Portland to rural counties in Washington, the Gorge’s renowned vistas were on the brink of destruction. Nancy Russell, forty-eight years old and with no experience in advocacy, fundraising, or politics, built a grassroots movement that overcame seventy years of failed efforts and bitter opposition from both Oregon and Washington governors, five of the six Gorge counties, Gorge residents, and the Reagan administration. While building her campaign, Russell stopped subdivisions, factories, and government neglect through litigation brought by her organization, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, and last-second land purchases by the Trust for Public Land. Initially ignored, then demonized, Russell had her tires slashed and her life threatened.
The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act barely passed—on the last day of the congressional session in 1986—and was signed by a reluctant President Reagan. Russell positioned the Friends to be a watchdog and orchestrated the purchase of thousands of acres of land for the public.
Bowen Blair, an attorney, former executive director of Friends of the Columbia Gorge, and TPL senior vice president, brings an insider’s perspective to this tumultuous and inspiring story in his new book, “A Force for Nature.” Blair tells the story of the unlikely activist who fought one of the most fiercely contested conservation battles of the 1980s, interweaving it with the natural and political history of the legendary landscape that inspired her.
Bowen Blair is an environmental attorney who has protected some of the nation’s most important landscapes. In the Columbia Gorge, Blair helped draft and lobby the act that established the country’s most prominent national scenic area and negotiated the purchase of thousands of acres for public parks and tribal homelands. He was later appointed by two Oregon governors to the Gorge Commission, which he chaired.