Two elderly couples praised as “dynamic duos” by Spokane Mayor Mary Verner grew up along lakes and rivers – and have dedicated years to protect the clear waters they cherish.
Spokane Valley farm boy Buell Hollister was 8 during the Great Depression when he first tethered his family’s two cows near the Spokane River to munch bunch grass. As a teenager working at a Spokane meat-packing plant in the 1940s, he remembers the large pipe that dumped animal entrails directly into the river he loved.
Now 82, he and his wife, Donna Hollister, later fought a railroad’s plan to locate a refueling station over the sole source of Spokane’s drinking water.
Julian Powers, 83, was born on a remote farm in Nez Perce County. He joined the Navy at 17 and retired from his engineering career at 54 to travel the world. After he met speech pathologist Jane Cunningham, now 79, at a church potluck in Spokane in 1990, the couple joined forces to warn the public about global warming and hold politicians accountable for their environmental and public policy stances.
Saturday, the two couples were honored by the Sierra Club’s Upper Columbia River Group and the Center for Environmental Law & Policy as “watershed heroes” for their work on Spokane River and aquifer issues.
A large crowd of environmental activists and Democratic politicians gathered to celebrate their accomplishments at the historic Summit Boulevard home of longtime environmental activists Dr. John Osborn and lawyer Rachael Paschal Osborn.
“You lead by example – if we could all be more like you,” Mayor Verner said as she honored their activism. Her praise was seconded by Spokane County Commissioner Bonnie Mager.
“You’ve changed our community because of your work. Thank you so much.”
The two couples have much in common. They are Unitarian Universalists, civil libertarians, lifelong readers, children of the Depression, and gardeners who raise much of what they eat. They have a stubborn belief that individuals can make a difference. They don’t expect to win every battle, and they acknowledge they’re slowing down, ready to pass the torch to younger activists.
Buell and Donna Hollister, both Spokane natives, have been married since 1956. They moved to Idaho in 1960, where they lived for 47 years on a farm near Hauser Lake and raised four children. He also had an auto detailing business in Spokane, near the car dealerships on Second Avenue. They recently moved back to Spokane.
Expo ’74, with its environmental theme, “really stimulated our interest” and triggered a public awareness of the river, Buell Hollister said. He heard an “electrifying” talk at Expo about humans’ place on Earth by David Brower, a charismatic leader in the Sierra Club and a founder of Friends of the Earth.
The Hollisters came to know Idaho legislator Art Manley, who worked with Sen. Frank Church in the 1970s to preserve Upper Priest Lake and was active in the Kootenai Environmental Alliance. At his invitation, the Hollisters joined the alliance board.
“We did this as a couple,” said Donna Hollister, who grew up swimming in the Little Spokane River and wanted to fight pollution and other environmental degradation.
Buell Hollister ran for the Idaho Legislature in 1994 as a Democrat and said he was advised by party insiders “not to mention the environment.” He lost to Republican Hilde Kellogg, now retired.
The Hollisters later joined others in an effort to stop Burlington Northern Santa Fe’s plans to locate a large refueling depot over the Spokane-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer. Along with water law attorney Rachael Paschal Osborn, they also fought proposed permits for two large power plants poised to pump huge quantities of water out of the aquifer.
The power plant fight was successful; the BNSF struggle was not.
“Two of the three (Kootenai) county commissioners overruled the unanimous recommendation of the three hearing examiners on BNSF (to deny the permit),” Hollister said. “We won, but politically we lost.”
After the refueling depot experienced a major leak in 2005 – triggering a 10-week emergency shutdown – BNSF officials invited the environmentalists for a tour. Monitoring of the site was beefed up with 54 monitoring wells.
The Hollisters also have worked through the Kootenai Environmental Alliance to persuade Post Falls and other North Idaho cities to reduce water consumption, largely through limiting sprinkler hours.
Jane Cunningham spent childhood summers at a Michigan lake where her father fished and hunted. She moved to Spokane with her first husband in 1960; he died in 1985.
After she met Powers in 1990, the couple began to work together on a myriad of environmental issues.
They helped Unitarian Universalist Church members monitor their garbage, water and electricity use. They still help run a monthly recycling program at the church.
Powers first studied global warming issues in the 1970s after reading the book “Hothouse Earth” by environmental scientist Howard A. Wilcox, one of his supervisors in the U.S Navy who also taught at Berkeley and Harvard.
“It made a huge impression on me,” Powers said. “People no longer think you’re some crackpot on Earth Day,” Mager said of Powers on Saturday. “Julian has forced people to look at global warming when others didn’t want to.”
Powers and Cunningham have worked on the political campaigns of several Spokane Democrats, including Mayors Sheri Barnard and Verner, Sen. Lisa Brown and Commissioner Mager.
“We’ve supported a lot of women candidates because they were often the best on environmental and social justice issues,” Cunningham said.
They’ve volunteered for the Lands Council, Friends of the Aquifer, the Sierra Club and the Center for Environmental Law & Policy and served on several city transportation and land use planning boards.
Although both couples say they’re ready to slow down, they’re optimistic about the future.
The Hollisters partied in Spokane with other local Democrats on the night of President Barack Obama’s inauguration and said they met many eager young people committed to the environment.
“Before we left, we hugged them. There was so much excitement there,” Buell Hollister said.
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