Nancy Neighbor Russel ‘53: Fearless and Craceful Conservationist 1932-2008

by Katy Muldoon, The Oregonian, Sunday, September 21, 2008

Nancy Neighbor Russell awoke three weeks ago with an insistent request: She wanted to spend the day in the place she loved best, the Columbia River Gorge.

Her caregiver suggested they plan the trip a couple of weeks out. But Russell, who’d been ailing and bedridden in her Southwest Portland home for a year, said, “No. I want to go today,” her son, Aubrey Russell, recalled.

They hired an ambulance, loaded Nancy in the back and drove east.

Russell, a homemaker who mounted one of the nation’s fiercest and most successful conservation battles while working to protect the gorge from indiscriminate development, died at home Friday [September 19, 2008]. She was 76.

Those who knew Russell remembered her as a lion in conservation circles, a fearless but graceful negotiator, a dogged fundraiser, a mentor to young leaders, and an inspiration to anyone who had the pleasure of hiking or hunting wildflowers with her on the grassy slopes above the Columbia River.

“She has peers,” said Jim Desmond, Metro’s director of regional parks and greenspaces. “They’re people like John Muir.

“Without Nancy Russell,the gorge would not have been protected,” he said. “Every time anyone takes a great hike or bike ride or drive through the gorge, they have Nancy Russell to thank for it.”

Russell was born January 11, 1932, in Portland. She attended Ainsworth Elementary School and taught herself to play tennis on a neighborhood court, nurturing a competitive streak that filled shelves with trophies and would serve her well during the fight for the gorge.

“I just had a lot of ‘By God, I’m gonna win this’ in my nature,” Russell told The Oregonian during an interview this spring.

She earned scholarships to Catlin, the predecessor to today’s Catlin Gabel School, and to Scripps College, where she studied English literature, graduating in 1953.

Four years later, she married Bruce Russell, a stockbroker and financial adviser who loved nature and Northwest history as much as she did.

They moved into the comfortable old Southwest Portland home where he grew up. The Russells had five children, and when she wasn’t busy tending them, Nancy raised plants and organized a conservation program for the Portland Garden Club.

She’d often 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.

By the late 1970s, the gorge she so treasured — with its cathedrallike walls, fir-draped canyons, rocky plateaus and rushing waterfalls — faced serious threats.

Plans for the new Interstate 205 bridge connecting Portland and Vancouver came hand in glove with suburban and industrial sprawl that would have spilled into the gorge.

At its western entrance, subdivisions were platted on the bluffs. A marina was planned for the south shore and a factory for the north shore.

In August 1979, the late architect and preservationist John Yeon invited the Russells to his estate on the Columbia River bank. Nancy Russell later would describe the evening as superb — the sunset washing the gorge’s walls pink, a full moon rising above Multnomah Falls.

Yeon may have suspected that such perfection would help persuade Russell to say yes when he asked whether she’d lead the fight and push Congress to protect the gorge.

She co-founded the Friends of the Columbia Gorge in 1980 and spent the next six years lecturing, lobbying, testifying, fundraising, and going toe-to-toe with a powerful foe, the timber industry.

Many who lived or worked in the gorge vilified her. They considered Russell a bullheaded outsider trying to change their way of life. Pickups sported bumper stickers that read, “Save the gorge from Nancy Russell.” Once, after testifying at a hearing in Skamania County, Wash., she discovered that someone had punctured three of her car’s tires.

Russell never lost her cool.

“She really taught me what it is to be a leader,” said Kevin Gorman, executive director of the Friends, which has grown into a 5,000-member organization. “She was so tenacious and so determined, but never strident or arrogant.”

In November 1986, Congress passed the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act, designating more than 292,000 acres as federally regulated land. The act was a compromise aimed at protecting and enhancing the gorge’s scenic, cultural, recreational, and natural resources while guarding economic interests.

Russell had won the battle, but her fight for the gorge continued the rest of her life.

She envisioned a necklace of public parks and hiking trails around the beautiful throat of the gorge. To craft it, she worked as a one-woman land trust. With her husband’s help, she bought every scenic gorge property she could get her hands on — 33 parcels totaling 600 acres — then sold many to the government for open space.

“So many of the trails she created, she was only able to walk on a few times,” said Bowen Blair, “but she knew generations of children would hike there. . . . She was doing this, really, for other people.”

Blair, senior vice president of the Trust for Public Lands, was a young lawyer in the 1980s when Russell hired him as the Friends’ first director. They remained close, and he visited her frequently after she was diagnosed several years ago with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, often called Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Russell handled her debilitating illness with the practicality and grace that defined her life, Blair said. “She would always say how lucky she was and what a wonderful life she had.”

Russell’s husband and a son, Hardy, preceded her in death. Survivors include her children, Aubrey Russell and Wendy Gerlach of Portland, Sally Russell Russenberger of Bend and Alison Russell of Grants Pass; her siblings, Robert B. Neighbor and Betsy Neighbor Smith of Portland; and seven grandchildren.

Aubrey Russell said his mother yearned this summer to see the bluff at Cape Horn, on the gorge’s west end, where she stopped a subdivision in its tracks. Last month, the only house ever built there was taken down, and the land will revert to its natural state.

“This just really excited mom, that the final piece of the puzzle was falling into place,” he said.

The family put Russell in an ambulance and spent the next eight hours that August day touring Cape Horn and other old hiking haunts. “She was laughing up a storm the whole way,” Aubrey Russell said. “She wanted to go, go, go.”

Finally, the ambulance climbed a dirt road to a grassy slope with sweeping gorge, river and mountain views. It was Nancy and Bruce Russell’s favorite spot, the place they called the South Forty.

In the soft light of the setting sun, she said goodbye.