Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

A legacy in land and water: Longtime activists John and Rachael Osborn moving to Vashon Island

After decades at the forefront of contentious environmental battles, John and Rachael Osborn are ready for some downtime.

The longtime activists are leaving Spokane for Vashon Island and semiretirement.

The Osborns donated their papers to the University of Idaho in preparation for the move. In a testimony to the couple’s remarkable volume of work, hauling their papers to UI’s archives in Moscow required professional movers.

The papers filled 27 filing cabinets and 75 boxes. The collection spans more than 30 years, documenting issues such as efforts to save the Northwest’s old-growth forests and increase summer flows over Spokane Falls.

“It’s a rich and interesting collection … providing a look at some of the pivotal struggles over land and water in our region,” said Erin Stoddart, UI’s head of special collections and archives.

John, a physician, will cut back his medical practice. Rachael, a water law attorney who taught at Gonzaga University, recently retired.

“We both turned 60 last year. That’s a number that will focus your attention,” Rachael said.

She wanted to live on an island in Puget Sound and devote some time to watercolor painting. John plans to finish an oral history he’s been working on with his mother, Marie, about her experiences as Idaho’s first nurse practitioner.

However, “I think our definition of retirement may be different than other people’s,” Rachael said.

The couple will stay active in lawsuits over the cleanup of industrial pollution in the Spokane River. Rachael also plans to continue representing climate activists who were arrested for blocking oil trains through Spokane last summer.

John will be back in Spokane one week each month to work at the Mann Grandstaff Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center. He retired as chief of medicine three years ago but has been working 50 to 70 hours a week as an urgent care doctor.

Given their history of activism, they’ll find causes in the Puget Sound region to embrace, predicted former Spokane County Commissioner John Roskelley, a friend and fellow activist.

When that happens, “I pity the fools” in their way, Roskelley said.

No ‘Kumbaya’ singalong

The Osborns have a reputation for tenacity and toughness.

In recent years, other environmentalists have worked with industry groups to find common ground on complex natural resource issues. The Osborns don’t see that as their role.

“You won’t find us holding hands around the table and singing ‘Kumbaya,’ ” Rachael said.

The couple’s work has always been about holding state and federal agencies accountable, John said. Neither has shied away from litigation or controversy.

That approach got John hanged in effigy by angry loggers early in his career as an activist. Rachael spent hours in depositions over litigation related to water rights, the Spokane River and the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer.

“They’re remarkable people,” said Buell Hollister, past president of the Kootenai Environmental Alliance. “When I met John, I couldn’t believe he had a day job; he was just unrelenting. … And Rachael was persevering.”

The Osborns met in their early 40s, when both were seasoned activists.

John had grown up in Boise, where his mother’s work in rural health care in the Upper Salmon River area influenced his decision to study medicine.

At the College of Idaho, he raced on a championship alpine ski team and spent summers working as a firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service. After he graduated from the University of Washington School of Medicine, he worked stints as a mission doctor overseas.

John returned to the Northwest for a residency at Sacred Heart Medical Center. Concerned about the clear-cutting of national forests during the 1980s, he and other interns laid the groundwork for what became the Lands Council, a Spokane-based environmental group.

John spent his days at the hospital and his nights at the fledgling nonprofit. During his vacations, he traveled to the U.S. Capitol to lobby for changes in forest management.

He wrote administrative appeals challenging timber sales and published “Transitions,” a magazine calling attention to logging of old-growth forests and the need for mining-waste cleanup in the Coeur d’Alene River basin.

“John would be there working until 3 in the morning after his shift as a doctor. It seemed like the guy only slept a few hours,” said Mike Petersen, the Lands Council’s current executive director.

The group’s Forest Watch Program became a national model for getting local citizens involved in challenging timber sales.

Osborn’s “eloquent writing … turned me into an activist,” said Roskelley, the former county commissioner.

Roskelley began monitoring timber sales on the federal lands where he hunted deer and elk in North Idaho. Soon he was filing appeals, too.

In the timber industry, John “was basically known as Dr. No,” said Bob Boeh, vice president of government affairs and community outreach for Idaho Forest Group in Coeur d’Alene.

Boeh went head to head with Osborn over road building on the Idaho Panhandle National Forests in the 1980s. At the time, Boeh was a manager for Plum Creek Timber Co.

Company officials wanted to log Plum Creek property surrounded by national forest land near Snow Peak, part of a roadless area south of Avery, Idaho. To get to their property, Plum Creek needed a road built across Forest Service land.

Osborn fought the project for three years. When environmental groups exhausted their last appeal, Osborn approached Boeh about working on a sale or exchange of the property. Boeh, who said he’d suggested that early on, was deeply frustrated.

“That experience led me to believe there was a better way than fighting all the time,” he said.

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game eventually acquired the Plum Creek property to preserve its roadless character. And Boeh opted for a new approach to dealing with environmental groups. Instead of battling them in court, he got involved in efforts to find common ground through the Forest Service’s collaborative work groups.

Both the Colville and Idaho Panhandle national forests have turned away from cutting big, old trees and logging roadless areas, partly as a result of the early “in your face” approach by the Lands Council, Petersen said.

“Sometimes, you need people who are hard core,” he said.

A first date at a Weyerhaeuser meeting

John and Rachael’s relationship blossomed over legal research. The couple met in the mid-1990s when John was co-writing a book about federal grants of timberland to railroads.

He was referred to the University of Washington’s Center for Environmental Law and Policy, where Rachael was the executive director. She had pursued a career in water law after seeing seabirds covered with oil on the California coast as a child.

For a first date, John invited her to Weyerhaeuser Corp.’s annual meeting, where he scolded the board of directors for intensive logging of the company’s timberlands.

Rachael was drawn to John, but wasn’t keen on moving to Spokane. After she was in a car accident in downtown Seattle, she changed her mind. “I thought, ‘OK, I do hate the traffic here,’ ” she said.

The couple moved into a historic house in the West Central neighborhood built by John C. Ralston, the engineer who designed the Monroe Street bridge.

The three-story Tudor revival was a far cry from the one-bedroom apartment crowded with filing cabinets where John spent his bachelor years. It was across the street from a bluff overlooking the Spokane River, which became a focus of Rachael’s work in Spokane.

“I knew I was crazy about John Osborn, but what I didn’t expect was to fall in love with the Spokane River,” she said. “I’d never lived anywhere where a wild river ran through the middle of a city, but it was a much-abused river.”

Tearing out the grass at their new home was a priority for the couple, who re-landscaped the lot with drought-tolerant plants.

Heavy pumping from the aquifer for watering lawns reduces flows in the Spokane River during the summer. The Osborns worked to draw attention to the connection.

“We have a real water quantity problem in the Spokane River,” Rachael said. “This region has to come to grips with its water habit so we can have a healthy river flowing during the summer.”

Through Rachael’s work, the couple also was involved in high-profile water cases across Eastern Washington, such as challenging Washington State University’s pumping of water from a declining aquifer to irrigate its Pullman golf course. The case went to the state Supreme Court, which upheld WSU’s ability to water the course.

River flow a lasting legacy

As the couple prepares to relocate, they’re mindful of work that remains unfinished.

John got involved in suicide prevention efforts after his nephew took his own life. It’s an issue that resonates deeply with him from his work with veterans and the Native Americans he came to know through his environmental advocacy.

John regrets leaving Spokane before netting or other barriers were installed to discourage suicide attempts from the Monroe Street bridge.

“Eventually, it will get done,” John said. “It doesn’t fix the suicide problem, but it is one place where people are taking their lives.”

Visitors to Riverfront Park this summer will benefit from one of the Osborns’ more visible legacies: putting water back in the Upper Falls of the Spokane River.

The flows over the Upper Falls used to dwindle to a trickle in the summer, leaving exposed rocks. Avista Corp. diverts part of the river through its Upper Falls hydroelectric project.

A group of stakeholders identified aesthetic flows as a priority for Avista as the utility began the relicensing process for its Spokane River dams. But it was Rachael’s legal work that made aesthetic flows a requirement through the state’s water quality certification.

The requirement called for 500 cubic feet of water flowing over the falls during daylight hours in the summer. But by filling in old channels in the riverbed, Avista was able to produce nicer-looking waterfalls with less water.

Speed Fitzhugh, an Avista manager, recalls standing on the Post Street bridge with John and Rachael. After numerous flow trials, they all agreed that 320 cubic feet of water per second created the look they wanted.

It was a heady moment, Fitzhugh said: “We all shook hands.”

The restored falls became a source of community pride, Rachael said.

“People have embraced it, including Avista,” she said.