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More MS news articles for May 2003

Oregon's rivers ran through Robert Kern Potter's life

May 5th, 2003
Catherine Trevison

Robert Kern Potter worked to keep Oregon rivers lined with trees rather than houses, to keep parks open and public, to make sure scenic rivers weren't siphoned dry.

Mr. Potter, who died April 25, 2003, at age 79, "was one of the early pioneers in the Tom McCall era of conservation, making sure that Oregon looked different" from other states, said parks veteran Charlie Ciecko, who considered Mr. Potter a mentor.

With his strong voice, direct manner and intellect, Potter could be intimidating. But he was also open-minded and pragmatic, Ciecko said.

"Whenever you can, let the resource talk for itself," Potter would advise Ciecko. "When you're dealing with policy-makers, the best way to win their support is to get them out and see the resource."

Mr. Potter was born Sept. 5, 1923. He grew up on outdoor adventures in the 1930s. As a youth, he skied, climbed and backpacked.

In 1961, he took his first river trip, a tour of the John Day River led by friend and outdoorsman Bob Peirce. Potter was "a superb boatsman," Peirce said, and the pair took many trips together. Later they led group trips that brought others to the sport.

Fought John Day dam "He had a feel for the rivers," Peirce said. "It wasn't necessarily the thrill of the rapids."

In the 1960s, Potter formed a group to fight a dam on the John Day River. Its work drew the attention of others who were lobbying for what is now known as the Oregon Scenic Waterways Act, a conservation measure.

Potter and his wife, Mary, campaigned for the petition drive that brought the measure to the ballot in 1970. Voters approved it.

After the law passed, his friend, Gov. Tom McCall, made Potter, who had worked for the Portland Public Dock Commission for 15 years, the state's first administrator for the rivers program.

"I see my job as a kind of protector of what is wild or unspoiled for all kinds of people to enjoy," he told a reporter at the time.

Peirce said the scenic waterway law didn't have much power, but Potter used his clout and presence to make people think that it did.

Ciecko said Potter also won support with a pragmatic approach.

"The Scenic Waterways program was a new concept in Oregon and across the entire nation," Ciecko said. "You were dealing with a lot of rural landowners who had serious and probably well-founded concerns about their ability to continue making their living from the land."

Farm decision At one point, Ciecko said, farmers were worried that the law's protection of river views would forbid construction with the corrugated tin roofs used on barns. Potter reasoned that agrarian activities were part of a scenic river and didn't conflict with the law. The farmers' tin roofs stayed.

But after eight years, Potter resigned to protest decisions by parks officials. He felt they were so afraid of dealing with political controversy and tough decisions that the law was becoming useless.

His resignation "made him feel good about sticking to principle," said his son, Bob Potter Jr.

Later, Potter sold real estate and worked on conservation issues. He helped support friend Arch Diack's landmark lawsuit against the state for letting too much water be siphoned from the Sandy River for other uses. In 1988, the state Supreme Court ruled that the state had to make sure enough water stayed in the rivers to keep them wild and scenic.

Potter was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and eventually confined to a bed.

Mr. Potter is survived by his wife, Mary Frances Potter; daughter, Sarah Kern Potter; son, Robert Potter Jr.; brother, Thomas I. Potter Jr.; half brother, James Potter; and half sister, Fran Hudson.

A celebration of life will be held at 3 p.m. today, May 3, at the Multnomah Athletic Club.

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