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Search The Fig Tree's stories of people who make a difference:

Ethics matter at bedsides, streamsides

By Mary Stamp

Educating and engaging in action with people through the Sierra Club and the Center for Environmental Law and Policy, physician-conservationist John Osborn applies principles he uses to diagnose and treat sick people to heal the environment.

John Osborn
John Osborn

Caring for patients at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Spokane, he listens, gathers history, examines the patient, and does lab tests and x-rays to make a diagnosis and decide on treatment.

“History is key to providing care for sick people and sick ecosystems,” said John, who edited the Transitions journal for the Lands Council from 1988 to 2000, recording historic changes in the Columbia River area.

He believes ethics matter at bedsides and streamsides.

“My work with caring for veterans and river systems has been much of my life,” he said, “I do what I do because it’s the right thing to do.

“Decisions we make about water, forests, environment and health care are moral decisions,” John said, noting that the 2001 Catholic Bishops’ Pastoral Letter on the Columbia River Watershed, “Caring for Creation and the Common Good,” underscores that.

To help people face facts and act ethically, he is learning to produce videos to tell stories and give voice to the voiceless, who include future generations, tundra swans, osprey, salmon and the river.

His love of the outdoors grew from fishing, hunting, canoeing and backpacking with his father, Cal, who worked with IBM in Boise. Being in Indian Guides, Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts furthered that love.

The commitment of his mother, Marie, a nurse practitioner who ran a medical clinic in Stanley, Idaho, serving a 6,000-square-mile area in the Sawtooth back country, inspired his medical career.

Four summers, while studying zoology, history, human ecology and chemistry at the College of Idaho in Caldwell, he fought forest fires.  After graduating in 1979, he spent three summers with hot shot crews fighting fires in the West to pay for medical school.

John entered the regional Washington Alaska, Montana and Idaho medical program, studying his first year in Moscow and Pullman. 

After two years of clinical studies in Seattle, he did residencies in internal medicine and critical care at Boise’s VA Hospital; in pediatrics at Pocatello; in multiple rotations at Seattle; in surgical pathology at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota; at McCormick Presbyterian Mission Hospital in Thailand, and in cardiology and nephrology at Spokane.

After his residency in Spokane, he planned to do mission medicine in poor countries, so he spent six weeks in 1985 at a Quaker mission hospital in Kenya. His involvement in conservation led him to set aside those plans.

In 1972, John’s mother took him to a public hearing where he testified against an open pit mine proposed in Idaho’s White Cloud Mountains. He helped organize public support for what became the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area in 1980.

During college, his work writing a book on the history of national forest protection informed his thinking on conservation.

In 1983 when John moved to Spokane for residency training, he became involved in efforts to protect wilderness in the Salmo-Priest and Kettle Range areas, and advocating for a 300,000-acre Mallard-Larkins wildland on the divide between the St. Joe and Clearwater Rivers.  Today, that wildland remains unprotected.

In 1976, Congress passed the National Forest Management Act because of national furor over clearcutting.  It required the U.S. Forest Service to complete management plans for 156 national forests and update them every 10 to 15 years.

“In Idaho, the forest plans were not written by scientists and economists but by timber politics,” he said.

In 1985, the Idaho Congressional delegation sought to rewrite the draft national forest plans to permit logging at high, unsustainable levels. John was involved in challenging the political system  on that before he went to Kenya, and long distance while there. 

Although he took a position at the Veterans Administration (VA) Medical Center in Spokane in 1986, expecting to be there a year, he has been there 25 years.  Two years ago, he became chief of medicine for the center that covers Eastern Washington, North Idaho and Northwest Montana.

He also serves as ethics consultation coordinator, palliative care team physician, medical director for the community living facility and webmaster for clinical staff caring for veterans in three states.

He notes that the web is a powerful tool for conservation and medical care.

Over the years, John helped start ethics training programs for resident physicians and the Regional Ethics Network of Eastern Washington (RENEW), which  piloted a form used to honor people’s choices at the end of life called “POLST” for Physicians Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment, now used statewide.

From 1986 to 2010, when he became chief of medicine, John coordinated the VA hospital’s HIV-AIDS program, beginning with few options for treatment until protease inhibitors came out in 1996 and more drugs since.

“It was like a miracle,” he said.  “Patients I thought we would lose were pulled back from the brink.  The key to the pandemic, however, is prevention.”

In medicine and conservation, he persists in challenging difficulties to bring progress.

His work in 1994 to reform the 1864 Northern Pacific Railroad Land Grant led to him meeting his wife, Rachael Pascal, attorney and director of the Center for Environmental Law and Policy (CELP) in Seattle, then part of the University of Washington Law School.  They were married in 2000.

John explained how the railroad land grant history had impact.  Lands intended for homesteaders ended up in the hands of large corporations.  In the 1980s, when large timber companies liquidated forest holdings, they cut many trees and exported them overseas.

“People could see the destruction to forests in the area,” he said, “because the old law granted public land to the railroad in alternating square-mile sections.  Logging those sections transformed the checkerboard pattern on the map into a clearcut reality in forests.”

Railroads and Clearcuts, which he published in 1995 with Derrick Jensen and George Diaffan, explains that the law signed by Abraham Lincoln to “promote the public interest and welfare” created a swath of checkerboard lands up to 120 miles wide from Lake Superior to Puget Sound. 

Although John has sought unsuccessfully to reform this law because of the damage it has brought, he has worked with others with some success to reform the governance of some companies by bringing resolutions to shareholders.

In the 1990s when presenting resolutions at shareholder meetings he gave autographed copies of Railroads and Clearcuts to companies on the Northern Pacific Railroad grant, reminding them of the public obligations that go with the grant lands.

With grant funding to do a legal analysis of the land grants, consumer protector Ralph Nader suggested he hire lawyers.  That led him to CELP.

As a connector and educator, John organizes people and groups to advocate for the environment.

 In 1983, while working on wilderness protection, he created the Spokane Resident Physicians Action League, organizing the medical community to protect the Mallard-Larkins Area.  It evolved into the Lands Council.  John was board president until 1996.

He has served on the executive committee of the local Upper Columbia River Group of the Sierra Club since 1983.  He is also coordinator of the Columbia River Future Project, part of Sierra Club’s Water Sentinels program, to restore the river. 

“Water scarcity is the pressing issue in Eastern Washington because of climate change and mismanagement of ground water by state and federal governments,” he said. “The state continues to give away water rights, letting corporate agriculture take water from deep basalt aquifers that do not recharge.  Mining the aquifers drops water tables and creates a crisis for many communities.”

Since 2005, he helped organize and support Connell area family farmers when Attorney General Rob McKenna reinterpreted a 1945 statute that once limited landowners to pump no more than 5,000 gallons a day for their stock or households.  Family dryland wheat farmers learned of plans for 300,000-cattle feedlot next to their farms.  Pumping a million gallons a day from a 1,500-foot-deep well threatens the farmers’ 700-foot-deep wells, he said.  Family farmers are losing access to water and their way of life.

Dam construction is another issue.  John is challenging Governor Christine Gregoire’s and the legislature’s 2006 decision to build new dams in Eastern Washington, costing $1 to $9 billion, while cutting vital programs. 

A dam on Lower Crab Creek near Othello would flood federal and state wildlife refuges and fishing lakes.  With the alarm sounded, the state backed off, he said.

A dam on the Similkameen River would have flooded a popular fishing area and seven miles into Canada.  With opposition from political leaders in Canada, proponents abandoned that dam.

Two new dams proposed for the Yakima Basin would destroy an endangered-wildlife habitat and ancient forest. Recently about 1,700 people submitted letters opposing these dams.

“Water has political currency and economic value.  We know we’re up against substantial political and economic forces,” he said.  “In saving these places and finding reasoned solutions to water scarcity, we empower people who care about these places.”

To clean up PCB pollution in the Spokane River, Sierra Club and CELP  filed citizen lawsuits in late 2011 to compel federal and state governments to enforce the federal Clean Water Act.

“For eight years, we asked the Environmental Protection Agency and the state to follow the law and set a cleanup plan,” said John.

Cleaning up 100 million tons of waste left from Silver Valley mines—lead, cadmium, zinc, arsenic and other metals—is another priority.  The contamination has moved downstream through wetlands into Lake Coeur d’Alene and the Spokane River, threatening human health and wildlife.

“Tundra swans migrate to wetlands covered with mine wastes.  Heavy logging and logging-road building from the 1950s to 1990s destabilized the forest watershed, so it can’t hold water and is flood prone,” he said.  “Floods flowing across the polluted floodplain carry mine wastes into Lake Coeur d’Alene and the Spokane River.”

John testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee in 1995, urging “the health of our watersheds and rivers.”  In floods the next year, the U.S. Geological Survey measured a daily flow of 1.4 million pounds of lead into Lake Coeur d’Alene.  Facing opposition from North Idaho business and political leaders who did not want a Superfund cleanup of mine wastes, John helped coordinate public efforts to clean up the pollution.

By leading ecological-historical tours of the Spokane River watershed, John helps people see the impact of Manifest Destiny on the region—starting with Lewis and Clark coming in 1805, to the Northern Pacific Land Grant Act, the 1872 mining law, the creation of  states in 1889 and 1890 with unworkable boundaries, the 1891 National Forest System Act and then the era of dam building.

Spokane was a center for four transcontinental railroads, mining, logging and dam building.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, John saw a natural outgrowth of history:  that the end of the timber frontier would inevitably come.  Corporations overcut forests and transferred capital to new forest regions, leaving shuttered timber mills, social upheaval and damaged forests, he said.

“In this transition, we were then able to protect some forests and advocate for local communities,” said John, who is less optimistic about the cleanup of mine wastes.

One success has been in restoring water to the Spokane Falls, with Sierra Club and CELP working with Avista.

Although discouraged about  efforts to build new dams, he sees an awakening of public interest in “the economic folly of spending billions of tax dollars for water projects rather than conserving water.”

Work for conservation for John requires ongoing commitment, as an activity of daily living and as a moral imperative.

For information, call 939-1290 or email john@waterplanet.ws