IF THE SIX-YEAR effort to pass the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act were a theater performance instead of a political fight, Scene 1 might have begun in August, 1979, with a picnic served atop a Ming Dynasty antique tray on a grassy berm directly across from Multnomah Falls. The time: early evening. The guests: Portland stockbroker Bruce Russell and his wife, Nancy, an outdoorswoman, Portland Garden Club member, and nature photographer. The host: John Yeon, architect, art collector, and conservationist. The setting: 75 acres of riverfront Yeon had saved from development and then shaped into a kind of nature theater he dubbed “The Shire.” The plot: woo Nancy Russell to Yeon’s lifelong fight to protect the beauty of the Gorge.
As the waning sun glazed the north-facing cliffs in a dappled pink sheen and Multnomah Falls glimmered, Yeon made his case. His own conservation efforts had begun in the early 1930s when Oregon Governor Julius Meier appointed him, at age 21, to the State Park Commission. In the decades since, he had lobbied federal officials, governors, and senators and testified before Congress, with only incremental successes.
But, now the threats were turning more urgent: a new freeway connection eventually dubbed the Glenn L. Jackson Memorial Bridge was, Yeon believed, about to unleash uncontrolled exurban sprawl on the largely unprotected northern side of the river. “The Gorge,” Yeon wrote to Senator Mark Hatfield, “is an orphan which Washington has abandoned and Oregon cannot adopt.”
Hatfield had outlined to Gorge supporters what he believed was needed to pass federal legislation: a citizen effort that included prominent Democrats and Republicans from both sides of the river. Nancy Russell’s social connections, her popular slide lectures on the Gorge’s flora, and her reputation for unstoppability (most notoriously on the tennis court) signaled to Yeon a worthy ally. And on this carefully chosen night, he was courting her.
Planted with a carefully chosen Astoria bent grass soft as a fur rug, the berm the trio ate upon that night gently rose from the river’s edge into a muscular, protractor-perfect curve facing the falls like an amphitheater. For Russell, a lover of landscapes both wild and groomed, the setting had its desired effect: within the year, she would host her own picnics there with the region’s movers and shakers to gather the coalition Hatfield demanded.
“My attitude toward building in landscapes was, and is, that of a landscape painter imagining what would look good in his landscape painting.”—John Yeon
The story of Russell’s cheerleading, cajoling, shoving, and ultimately driving home the 1986 Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act has been well told. (See Portland Monthly’s August 2006 issue, for example.) Yeon’s place in this history is far less known. Yet his advocacy stretched over five decades and involved everything from writing the Gorge’s first environmental impact statement to fussing over the details of the concessions at Multnomah Falls. Although the federal legislation fell far short of what Yeon dreamed of, he and his idyllic riverfront reserve were guiding lights without which the 292,500 acres we know today as the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area might not exist. As Russell herself put it, “Somebody like John is terribly important to have in these things—a star up there in the sky, a pure point of view.”
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BORN IN 1910, Yeon (pronounced “yawn”) grew up as economic and political forces were variously reshaping the Columbia River Gorge from wild frontier to shipping corridor, electricity generator, and industrial engine. But he believed its wild beauty should and could be both preserved and made accessible.
“I cannot possibly express my endless pleasure in the magnificence of the Gorge nor my sense of its uniqueness,” he wrote, summing up his view in an undated letter to Hatfield. “Its seried crags and collection of waterfalls exist between rain forests and semi-deserts, combining a contrast of landscapes usually separated by great distances, if not by oceans…. No other city has such a rare resource as close as a suburban park. And if it had, no other city would tolerate its imminent degradation.”
Yeon’s connection ran deep. His father, John B. Yeon, made a fortune in timber, built what was then the state’s tallest high-rise (the Yeon Building at 522 SW Fifth Ave) in 1911, and then turned full-time civic volunteer as Multnomah County’s first road master. Collaborating with patrons Sam Hill and Simon Benson and engineer Samuel Lancaster, the elder Yeon, beginning in 1913, oversaw the nine-year construction of the Columbia River Highway, the first paved highway in the state. Their goal: a scenic road for tourism that, in Lancaster’s words, would “rival if not surpass anything to be found in the civilized world.”
The younger Yeon became a worthy inheritor to his father and collaborators’ legacy. Largely self-taught as an architect (he often said he got his most important education combing the library of early-century Portland architect Herman Brookman), Yeon emerged in his 20s a fully formed visionary, pioneering a Northwest brand of modernism in a series of homes and gardens that landed him among the likes as Frank Lloyd Wright, Philip Johnson, and Richard Neutra in international magazines and four exhibitions at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. For Oregon, Yeon’s conservation efforts arguably were even more far-reaching if not as widely known. In the early 1930s, he borrowed $15,000 on a life insurance policy to buy Chapman Point, north of Cannon Beach, to stop a dance hall from marring what today is one of the most photographed vistas on the coast: the view of Haystack Rock from Ecola State Park. He successfully battled the powerful state highway engineer R. H. “Sam” Baldock to stop huge chunks of Neahkahnie Mountain from being blown away for a new road. And the governor appointed him chair of both the State Park Commission (where he helped lay the groundwork for the Oregon’s park system) and the Columbia Gorge Committee, a federal-level planning effort to envision an economic development and conservation plan for the region in anticipation of the Bonneville Dam.
In 1937, Yeon penned the committee’s final report, “Conservation and Development of the Scenic and Recreational Resources of the Columbia Gorge”—in effect, the area’s first environmental impact statement. While fully embracing the economic and industrial potential of the dam, Yeon proposed that “the Gorge in itself is an industry paying substantial annual dividends as an exhibit of surpassing natural scenery … as long as its wild and magnificent scenery survives.” His report went on to outline plans for recreation facilities, trails, game refuges, and even the early notion of “beauty screens”—wide strips of trees bracketing the highway to block views of timber operations. But perhaps most important, the report successfully argued that the Bonneville Dam’s power should be sold for a flat rate within the region rather than more cheaply closer to the dam. The Portland Chamber of Commerce opposed such flat rates for fear that the dam’s inexpensive power, if made too widely available, would further power Seattle’s rise. But Yeon and his committee prevailed, thereby removing economic incentives for factories to build closer to the dam, where they would mar the Gorge’s scenery.