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How Bioregional Thinking Might Rescue Greater Yellowstone
February 7, 2023
How Bioregional Thinking Might Rescue Greater Yellowstone
A woman's powerful vision: Robert Liberty reviews new book by Bowen Blair, "A Force for Nature: Nancy Russell’s Fight to Save the Columbia Gorge"
EDITOR'S NOTE: Can the critical world-class components of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem—especially its vaunted wildlife migrations— withstand disjoined thinking and numerous pressures descending upon them without a regional plan and a strategy for implementation? What history has demonstrated over and over again is that fragmented thinking yields fragmented landscapes that lose their wild essence. Some big picture thinkers believe there are useful reference points out there for pondering a bioregional vision. One example of what not to do is the Florida Everglades where billions of dollars are being spent trying to piece back together what was once one of the world's richest aquatic ecosystems. In the Pacific Northwest, some point to the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area whose creation involved both top-down and bottom-up planning. In the book review below, renowned land use planner Robert Liberty reviews Bowen Blair's work that focuses on the life of Nancy Russell who fought to protect the Gorge.
By Robert Liberty
."..establishment women (many of whose husbands are captains of industry) are uncomfortable with controversy and with taking strong stands, because their familial roles are as peace-makers….With this urge to keep peace, women often look for compromise and forget that there is a time to be an advocate. Women can be effective advocates, and they should be advocates of issues dear to their hearts." —Nancy Russell
Bowen Blair’s “A Force for Nature: Nancy Russell’s Fight to Save the Columbia Gorge” is a welcome addition to the limited number of accounts of the leadership roles played by women in the conservation movement in the 20th Century.
It offers special insights for persons and organizations wrestling with the impacts of development on the private lands bordering the national parks and wilderness areas of the Northern Rockies.
It is both vivid and intimate because the author was in the front lines, shoulder to shoulder with Russell, in the long-running fight to save the Columbia River Gorge. This allows Mr. Blair to include fascinating behind-the-scenes details and incidents, only possible in an eye-witness account.
The Columbia River is the daughter of the Canadian Rockies. After it crosses the border and before it enters the Gorge, it has gathered together the waters of many iconic rivers of the Northern Rockies—the Snake, Clearwater, Clark Fork, Kootenai and Salmon.
The Gorge was born of water, fire and ice; 11 million years of massive lava flows piling up a mile deep, then carved out by gigantic ice age floods as the ice dam that created Lake Missoula repeatedly failed, releasing a volume of water estimated to be equal to all the rivers in the world.
The Columbia enters the Gorge bordered by a cold desert, crosses through the shadows of a dense rain forest below the snowy volcanic peaks of the Cascades and exits into the mild marine climate of the Portland-Vancouver metropolitan suburbs.
For thousands of years, it was a trade route and a place for commerce and cultural exchange between the tribes of the Pacific Coast, the Interior Plateau and the Rockies.
The descendants of the white settlers who rafted down the Columbia, following the route of Lewis and Clark, recognized the grandeur of the place. A national park, encompassing much of the western Gorge, was proposed early in the 20th Century, with the support of the Portland Chamber of Commerce. But that proposal was thwarted, most notably by the newly created Forest Service, jealous of its authority and committed to its mission of cutting, not conserving, the forests.
By the 1970s, the Gorge was at risk from the rapidly growing Portland-Vancouver metro area. There were proposals for an industrial park in a major wetland, subdivisions along the bluffs, marinas along the shoreline, a bottling plant at a waterfall and a wider, straighter interstate freeway.
Which is when Nancy Russell was recruited by John Yeon, at a carefully curated moonlit dinner in the Gorge to lead the effort to protect the Gorge. Yeon, a noted Oregon architect believed that …"subdivisions, which spread like cancers, are the most hopeless afflictions of great natural landscapes." He wanted them stopped. He had been a vigorous advocate for the Gorge for many years but believed the rapidly increasing threats required someone younger to lead the effort—and he believed Nancy Russell was that person.
Russell was raised in modest circumstances in Oregon. She matured into a woman who loved the outdoors, was athletic, adventurous, and extremely competitive: “I like to win,” she said, and she usually did.
Her passion for the unique botany in the Gorge widened into a passion for the Gorge itself. Her fight to save it transformed her from a lively housewife into a fearless, and relentless advocate, who did not hesitate to take on the powerful men (and some women) who facilitated or countenanced the destruction of the Gorge.
The complexity of the effort to secure support for, and draft, the legislation was daunting. It was totally unlike creating a national park or designating a wilderness area. Over two-thirds of the lands she and her allies sought to protect were private lands. In addition to the private lands, Russell had to consider and contend with multiple federal and state agencies, sovereign tribes, US senators , members of Congress, county commissioners, ranchers, loggers, land speculators, powerful and ruthless opponents and fractious allies.
The instrument for this work was the Friends of the Columbia Gorge, which Russell and Blair led as board chair and executive director. The trials and tribulations of creating, funding and directing a nonprofit conservation advocacy group are often central to successful conservation efforts but can only be described fully by someone who was directly involved, like the author.
“A Force for Nature: Nancy Russell’s Fight to Save the Columbia Gorge" is great reading for anyone who has played a role, big or small, or wants to, in the battles to conserve the lands, landscapes and wildlife of Greater Yellowstone and the wider West. —Robert Liberty
Blair’s story of the passing of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act introduces us to a kaleidoscope of colorful characters; heroes and villains, hypocrites, honest and shape-shifting politicians, Yeon, the visionary architect who created his own private version of Tolkien’s Shire and a realtor who believed his proposed subdivision was endorsed by God.
It includes moments of high drama—a nail-biting last minute floor vote in Congress, a Republican senator from Oregon calmly using his power as chair of Senate Appropriations to force President Reagan to sign the bill, tire slashings and death threats.
President Reagan signed the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act in November 1986. The Act created a unique bi-state agency, operating under Federal authority, with responsibility for the Gorge shared between an appointed commission and the US Forest Service.
Its mission is to protect and enhance the scenic, cultural, recreation, and natural resources of the Columbia River Gorge and promote the economic vitality of the cities and towns of the Gorge. It applies to an 85-mile-long strip of public and private land that runs from the desert, past the lush forests and waterfalls of the Cascades to the very edge of the Portland-Vancouver metropolitan area.
The mission of the landmark legislation signed into law by President Reagan is to protect and enhance the scenic, cultural, recreation, and natural resources of the Columbia River Gorge and promote the economic vitality of the cities and towns of the Gorge. It applies to an 85-mile-long strip of public and private land that runs from the desert, past the lush forests and waterfalls of the Cascades to the very edge of the Portland-Vancouver metropolitan area.
Appropriately, Blair does not end the story with the passage of the Gorge Act. The last third of the book is devoted to the critical, but often unappreciated next steps, turning the idea behind legislation into reality and constant vigilance in monitoring its implementation. Russell knew that government agencies and politicians often faltered when it came to the hard job of adopting and enforcing land regulations. She remarked more than once that it was necessary to “hit them hard” to get them to honor their commitments.
Because of their concerns about the long-run security of land regulations Russell (and Blair) buttressed the regulatory framework with an ambitious effort to protect private lands in partnership with the Trust for Public Lands, both before and after the passage of the legislation. Russell and her husband refinanced their own home and advanced loans more than once to buy critical lands.
Indefatigable, Nancy Russell brought the campaign to protect the Columbia Gorge to The White House and the attention of then-Vice President George H. W. Bush. Russell, venerated for her competitive spirit, refused to quit in her advocacy, not unlike the fearless women who advanced—and continue to advance—conservation in Greater Yellowstone.
Rolf Jemtegaard, a 78 year old widower, whose family emigrated from Norway to the Gorge around 1900, wanted to save his farm from development. But his own declining health and family situation required economic security.
He was the beneficiary of one of the many transactions Russell pushed: His land was purchased while reserving his right to live on the farm for the rest of his life, a conservation easement was applied to the land and it was resold to another farmer. The local paper’s headline was “Washougal family sells their farm to save it.”
After leaving Friends of the Gorge, Blair drew on his experience to launch a distinguished career with land conservancies throughout the West, including in Greater Yellowstone and on behalf of Indian nations.
Sadly, Nancy Russell died of ALS in 2008, shortly after a last impromptu visit to her beloved Gorge while on oxygen and assisted by paramedics. But her fight continues, with new challenges and new actors (although the script often seems distressingly familiar.)
The Gorge Commission is continuing its work under the leadership of a Chair and Vice Chair from the tribes whose treaty rights both support and are supported by the Gorge Commission. It is grappling with climate change and fires, the rise of home prices, the proliferation of short-term rentals, and the impacts of mass tourism on its delicate ecosystem, among other things.
“A Force for Nature: Nancy Russell’s Fight to Save the Columbia Gorge" is great reading for anyone who has played a role, big or small, or wants to, in the battles to conserve the lands, landscapes and wildlife of Greater Yellowstone and the wider West.
ENDNOTE: Read these Mountain Journal original stories below featuring renowned planner Robert Liberty who wrote the book review above.
Wildlife's Most Ferocious Predator: Human Sprawl by Todd Wilkinson