Founder Nancy Russell

Nancy Russell with "Wildflowers of the Columbia Gorge" author Russ Jolley in the Memaloose Hills.

Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.—Theodore Roosevelt

Nancy Neighbor Russell (1932-2008)

It is safe to say that no individual has had such a lasting and profound impact on a Pacific Northwest landscape as Nancy Russell has had on the Columbia River Gorge.

Born in Portland, Oregon to Robert W. Neighbor and Mary Ann Bishop Neighbor, Nancy Ann Neighbor grew up in Portland, OR with her brother Bob and sister Betsy. After receiving academic scholarships to Catlin School (now Catlin Gabel) and Scripps College in Claremont, California, she married Bruce Russell in 1957 and raised four children: Sally, Wendy, Alison and Aubrey.

Taking up the Gorge protection mantle

In the late 1970s, John Yeon, well-known architect and son of the roadmaster of the Historic Columbia River Highway, was looking for a leader to take up the charge for federally protecting the Columbia River Gorge. The creation of the I-205 Bridge across the Columbia meant that development would more easily sprawl into the Gorge. John invited Nancy and Bruce to his property across from Multnomah Falls to “woo” Nancy into taking the lead to protect the Gorge.

With little experience with non-profits, and no fundraising or lobbying experience, Nancy agreed to lead the effort to launch Friends of the Columbia Gorge to pursue the goal of federal protection for the Columbia Gorge. John Yeon and others had no idea what they had unleashed.

For six years, Nancy fundraised, lobbied, spoke to groups throughout Oregon and Washington, and fearlessly stood up to opponents and politicians interested in watering down or compromising legislation to protect the Gorge. Nancy endured countless threats, slashed tires and bumper stickers saying "Save the Gorge from Nancy Russell." Her efforts bore fruit in 1986 when Congress passed and President Ronald Reagan signed the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act. It was the only stand-alone environmental legislation of the Reagan Administration.

WATCH this 60-minute Oregon Public Broadcasting special, "Columbia Gorge: The Fight for Paradise," which commemorated the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act.

Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area and beyond

No individual has had such a lasting impact on a Pacific Northwest landscape as Nancy Russell has had on the Gorge. Nancy:

  • Shepherded through the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act;
  • Founded an organization that today boasts 17 staff, 5,500 members, and a nearly $2 million annual budget;
  • Advocated for the purchases of nearly 40,000 acres of public land from willing sellers, and;
  • Personally purchased over 30 properties to protect them from development.

Nancy’s decades of work also led to a shift in sentiment toward her among Gorge residents. Nancy and Bruce’s $500,000 donation to Oregon State Parks to keep automobiles off the restored section of the Historic Columbia River Highway from Hood River to Mosier endeared her forever with the community of Mosier. And while Skamania County flew its flag at half-mast when the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act passed in 1986, twenty years later the same county purchased land from Nancy for the Cape Horn trailhead. She sold it to them for half its value.

Nancy died in September 2008 after a four-year battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Her memorial service was held at the Portland Art Museum on the opening weekend of the “Wild Beauty” exhibit, celebrating the wild beauty of the Columbia Gorge. It was a fitting farewell, as “wild beauty” not only embodies the Columbia Gorge, it also captures the spirit of that great guardian of the Gorge, Nancy Russell.

Support Nancy Russell's legacy. Make a gift to Friends today.

Lifetime Conservation Awards

2002 Assoc. of Fundraising Professionals, Oregon Chapter, Distinguished Service Award, Outstanding Volunteer Fundraiser
2002 Green Elephant Award for Citizen Conservation Achievement, Republicans for Environmental Protection
2002 Mosier Alliance, “For contributions to the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail, Mosier to Hood River.”
2002 The Trust for Public Land, “In appreciation to Nancy Russell for her vision, courage and tenacity in protecting the Columbia River Gorge.”
2001 “150 Top Oregonians”, The Oregonian
2000 $50,000 American Land Conservation Award, The Land Trust Alliance
2000 $5,000 Donald M. Kerr Award for Conservation, High Desert Museum
1999 Distinguished Alumni Award, Catlin Gable School
1999 Chevron/Times Mirror Magazines Conservation Award, Washington, D.C., “Exceptional Service in the Cause of Conservation”
1994 Distinguished Alumnae Award, Scripps College, Claremont, CA
1987 Aubrey R. Watzek Award, Lewis and Clark College
1987 Garden Club of America Margaret Douglas Award for “Notable Service to the Cause of Conservation.”
1984 Annual March of Dimes White Rose Award for Community Service
1983 William O. Douglas Award, Oregon Natural Resources Council, for “Courage in efforts to secure Oregon’s wild lands and waters.”
1983 Pacific Northwest Magazine Award, “Inspiring others to search for excellence and making the Northwest a better place to live.”
1983 Portland Beautification Award: “Dedication to Preservation of the Columbia River Gorge.”
1982 Garden Club of America Zone XII Conservation Committee Award