A scrappy conservation group in Portland has received a giant gift. The $4 million windfall for the Friends of the Columbia Gorge came from Norman Yeon, the son of a legendary Oregon timber and real estate baron.

Yeon’s father, John Baptiste Yeon, earned $2.50 a day as a logger when he first arrived in Oregon in 1885. He parlayed that into his own forest tracts, felling giant trees that were used to help build the growing city of Los Angeles. By 40, he was a millionaire, and he expanded his fortune investing in and constructing buildings in downtown Portland.

Norman Yeon amassed a fortune of his own with a Portland furniture store and San Francisco real estate investments. He died in January of 2004 at age 88, after a fall in his home on the coast. His surprise bequest to Friends of the Columbia Gorge amounts to half of his cash estate.

The timing couldn’t have been better. Directors of the conservation group, which has roughly 5,000 members, recently decided to begin buying land to protect the gorge’s broad views from sprawling development. The passage last November of a ballot measure that undermines Oregon’s strict land-use laws has made the future of the gorge even more hotly contested (HCN, 11/22/04: In Oregon, a lesson learned the hard way).

The group will first look at nearly 2,000 acres of critical land that the U.S. Forest Service has been unable to buy, though the owners have offered to sell. "I’ve been scrambling around for 25 years to keep Friends of the Columbia Gorge in business," says the group’s founder, Nancy Russell. "This group was the little engine that could. It’s a small group, but it’s capable of very big things."