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News / Northwest

3 new books tell story of Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area

Recent books capture different views of landmark

By Chuck Thompson, Columbia Insight
Published: April 11, 2023, 6:08am

It’s likely you’ve never hiked through the Columbia River Gorge, gazed over the riparian, mountain and meadow landscape and taken the opportunity to reflect upon President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative.

But perhaps on your next outing you might.

The connection between the Gorge and Reagan’s 1980s “Star Wars” dreams is just one of the endless fascinating insights into the creation of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area summoned by Bowen Blair in his recent book, “A Force for Nature: Nancy Russell’s Fight to Save the Columbia Gorge,” published late last year by Oregon State University Press.

The Gorge is, of course, an ever-present landmark of the Pacific Northwest. But these days, perhaps because threats to the area’s unique biodiversity are mounting amid climate change, calls for development and a fading collective memory of the process by which the area was protected in the 1980s, the Gorge seems to be much on the mind of the generation that legally enshrined it.

A handful of recent books, each capturing different views of the Gorge, have been published over the past half-year or so. Three in particular are worthy of a place on the nightstand. Or, more appropriately, in the pocket of a daypack.

‘A Force for Nature: Nancy Russell’s Fight to Save the Columbia Gorge,’ by Bowen Blair

If any one person can take credit for the establishment of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, it’s legendary Portlander Nancy Russell, who died in 2008.

As Jonathan Nichols wrote in The Oregonian upon Russell’s passing: “Without Nancy Russell, the Columbia River Gorge would not be a Scenic Area. It would be a strip mall.”

Deploying cockeyed optimism, brute will and savvy political maneuvering, Russell devoted the second half of her remarkable life to carrying on the century-long effort to protect the Gorge from the dozers of development … and triumphed.

The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act was signed into law in 1986.

In chronicling the battle to get it passed, author Bowen Blair, an environmental attorney who aided Russell’s mission and was later appointed by two Oregon governors to chair the Gorge Commission, peppers the broad strokes of the Gorge story with irresistible, behind-the-scenes insight. (Blair is also on the Columbia Insight board of directors.)

Amid accounts of wrangling at the city, county, state and federal levels, Blair explains why the Gorge National Scenic Area Act might never have passed the “series of crevices, hurdles and banana peels” that stood in its way had it not been for deft political horse-trading by Russell and the muscle she lobbied.

For just one example, had pro-scenic-area Oregon Republican Sen. Mark Hatfield not let anti-scenic-area Ronald Reagan know that unless the president signed the act into law he might as well forget about Senate support for his Strategic Defense Initiative (nicknamed “Star Wars”), the Gorge as we know it today might be vastly different.

The day after Hatfield’s thinly veiled warning, the president famously “signed the bill with one hand and held his nose with the other,” according to Hatfield.

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Though Russell’s larger-than-life effort to protect the Gorge is its centerpiece, A Force for Nature stands as a masterful and deeply researched explanation of human impact on the Gorge, from the Tribes that fished and cultivated it to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that tamed it to the government act that protected it to the multifarious interests that haggle over it to this day.

For anyone who loves the Gorge—or just considers it an easy escape from the city—this is essential reading.

“A Force for Nature” is available from Oregon State University Press, Powell’s and other booksellers.

‘Implementing Gorge Protection: A View from the Front Lines, True Stories of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act Implementation,’ by Jurgen Hess

Creating the National Scenic Area on paper was one thing. Making it a reality on the ground was quite another.

Now a retired U.S. Forest Service NSA area manager and land use coordinator, as well as a former member of the Gorge Commission and current Columbia Insight board member, Jurgen Hess picks up the story of the Gorge with the signing of the legislation that created the national scenic area in 1986.

Then a young, idealistic Forest Service employee, part of Hess’s job was to ensure the implementation of rules that many in rural Gorge communities had vehemently opposed, and sometimes obstructed once they’d been signed into law.

Drawn from his own contemporaneous notes and official day planner entries and other records, Hess’s book is largely a collection of vignettes recounting the fraught early days of Gorge National Scenic Area Act. Its winning, on-the-ground perspective is by turns humorous, insightful and harrowing.

“Front lines” is little exaggeration. Hess faced bomb threats and other intimidation tactics as he made the rounds explaining how, like them or not, the government’s new protections of the Gorge were going to be enforced.

“There were many early disputes as to where the official boundaries were or where they ‘should have been,’” writes Hess.

Though by no means vanquished, many of those disputes have now been largely settled. Hess closes his 55-page book with a quote about the creation of the Gorge National Scenic Area Act from Skamania County Assessor Glenda Kimmel: “If we knew then (1986) what we know now, we might not have been so frightened of it—the county hasn’t done too badly.”

“Implementing Gorge Protection” is available at Waucoma Bookstore (Hood River) and Klindt’s Booksellers (The Dalles).

‘Into the Wind: Tales & Poetry of the Memaloose Hills,’ by Richard Benner

Not a tale of conflict, former Gorge Commission Executive Director (1987-91) Richard Benner’s book stands as a reminder of why those early battles for Gorge preservation were fought in the first place. The beauty and majesty of the area drives his elegant volume of reflections and photos.

You might think a guy who spent a good part of his working years helping to author statewide land use planning programs would produce prose as dry as tinder. You’d be wrong.

From the opening chapter (“Romancing a Landscape”) explaining his decision to purchase a home in the Gorge, Benner effortlessly connects with the silent, spiritual power of the area’s unique landscape and biodiversity, both plant and animal.

His ruminations on birds in the middle Gorge is pitch perfect.

A passage on getting ready for a hike strikes a universal chord among all who have ever planned an outing in the Gorge:

As we prepare for our morning stroll in the hills, we first check our apps. Mine says it is not raining; Lavinia’s says it began raining fifteen minutes ago. Doubt arises. Next we check the north patio. It is damp, but not soaked, and there are no visible drops splashing on the pavers. Still, inconclusive. I dress for dry. She dons her rain jacket, and we head for the hills.

“Into the Wind” is available at Waucoma Bookstore (Hood River), Brenna’s Mosier Market (Mosier), Klindt’s Booksellers (The Dalles) and Broadway Books (Portland).