Long before the Northwest became hip for Portlandia and high-tech, it was defined by the natural world that made it a desirable place to live.
That environment drew many people to the region—some famous, most entirely unheard of—and here are some of the Northwest’s outdoor heroes, past and present.
Most of Oregon’s pioneering environmental policies—public beaches, statewide land-use planning to reduce sprawl, the replacement of Portland’s Harbor Boulevard with a public park, the first cleanup of the Willamette River, and the first Bottle Bill—they all date from the administration of Tom McCall, Republican Governor from 1967 to 1975. In some ways, he was an unlikely environmental hero: a Republican newscaster with limited legislative experience.
He was confronted with an attempt to privatize Oregon’s beaches in his first few months in office. He broke a legislative stalemate with an off-the-cuff public relations coup: landing a helicopter on the beach with TV cameras rolling. He’s also the only well-known person on this list—which sums up one of his quotes: “Heroes are not giant statues raised against a red sky. They are people who say ‘this is my community and it’s my responsibility to make it better.’”
A Seattle-based photographer, Fobes photographed the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989. But her major impact came in 1995, when she published Reaching Home: Pacific Salmon, Pacific People, a photographic depiction of the importance of salmon to both human culture and ecology of the Pacific Northwest. The project helped launch the movement to protect salmon, which were listed as an endangered species in much of the region about the same time.
The project was over a decade in the making, with countless naysayers: magazine editors who wanted to know why she wanted to photograph fish and publishers who suggested a cookbook instead. She showed them—the project was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and was published in National Geographic. Fobes hasn’t stopped using her lens to the environment; she co-founded the Blue Earth Alliance, which helps photographers use their cameras to aid conservation.
The City of Portland’s first African-American City Commissioner, and director of the Parks Bureau for 14 years, Jordan led Portland Parks from a “nice” bureau to one that was core to Portland’s identity and quality of life. He established 44 new parks and recreation centers, started movies in the park, and created the clear link between healthy parks, a healthy population, and a city’s vibrancy. “In staff meetings, Charles would also tell us, ‘this is not fun and games. What we do helps people. It helps them be proud of their neighborhoods, it helps them feel good about themselves, it helps them feel like part of a community,’” Zari Santner, who worked for Jordan and succeeded him as parks director, told the Oregonian when Jordan passed away in 2014.
British Columbia’s Central Coast, also known as the Great Bear Rainforest, is vast, remote, thinly populated, and so hard to access that it’s easily overlooked. But the maze of rugged islands and inlets is one of the most ecologically rich and threatened places in North America. From his sailboat, frequently docked near the Heiltsuk village of Bella Bella, McAllister directs Pacific Wild which has fought off multinational logging companies, grizzly bear poachers, mines, and tar sands pipelines, including getting two recent wins: a major land conservation agreement and a stopping a major oil pipeline.
The Columbia Gorge, despite its beauty, faces a lot of risk of oil spills. Development pushes out from Portland and from Gorge communities like The Dalles and Hood River. In the 1970s, Gorge lovers Russ Jolley and John Yeon, seeking someone to help preserve the Gorge, landed on a homemaker with no organizing or political experience. In Nancy Russell, they unleashed a conservation hurricane.
Channeling the drive that had made her an amateur tennis champion, she pushed endlessly for conserving public land and scenic character in the Gorge, often against very personal opposition. “Save the Gorge from Nancy Russell” stickers pushed back against moves to protect the Gorge, and she came out of one hearing to find her car tires punctured. Undaunted, she notched the defining victory when Gorge Scenic Act became law in 1986. What was once considered a far-fetched quest is not one of the Northwest’s best places.
The Yakama had fished for salmon for millennia along the Columbia, and their traditional fishing rights were enshrined in the treaty they tribe signed with the United States in 1855…supposedly. Like many treaties signed with Native Americans, it was largely ignored. Sohappy, who fished at Cook’s Landing near the meeting of the Little White Salmon and the Columbia, filed suit in 1968 to prevent interference with treaty rights.
During the next two decades of appeals, Sohappy continued to ignore state fishing ordinances and assert their treaty rights. In 1981, he and 74 others were arrested for illegal fishing and given a sentence of five years in prison. Sohappy vs. Smith was eventually upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, leading to the re-establishment of native fishing rights on the Columbia “at all usual and accustomed places”, but Sohappy did not live to see it: he died five months before the decision.
The people on this list have one thing in common: they’re normal people with everyday lives who decided that the outdoors was something they loved that needed protecting and did something about it. So can you.