Osborn, John (b. 1956) and Rachael Paschal (b. 1956)

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 3/27/2011
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9782

The Spokane husband-wife environmentalist team of John Osborn and Rachael Paschal Osborn have been in the lead of Eastern Washington's conservation movement for decades. Osborn is an internist and chief of medicine at Spokane's Veteran's Administration Medical Center. Yet ever since he was a resident physician in the early 1980s he has devoted his non-medical life to forest and water conservation. He was the co-founder and longtime coordinator of the Inland Empire Public Lands Council (later called simply The Lands Council), which took the initiative in many of the contentious logging and wilderness battles of the 1980s and 1990s. Osborn was labeled as everything from "strident" by a future Secretary of the Interior to a "hero" by the Wilderness Society and the Washington Environmental Council. Rachael Paschal Osborn was the co-founder and executive director of the Center for Environmental Law & Policy at the University of Washington Law School. They married in 2000 and moved the center's headquarters to Spokane. She remains the center's executive director and John serves on the board. Both remain deeply involved in water and forest conservation causes.

John Osborn

John Osborn has been accused by some of his public foes of being a big-city doctor who doesn't understand the land. Yet his roots run deep in the forests and mountains of Washington and Idaho.

Osborn was born on June 26, 1956, in Bellingham and his family moved to Boise when he was 7. His mother, Marie Osborn, became Idaho’s first practicing nurse practitioner and he was inspired by her to pursue medicine. He attended the College of Idaho in Caldwell and spent his summers -- seven of them -- working in the region's national forests as a forest firefighter. At the College of Idaho, he was an Alpine ski racer on a national championship ski team.

His interest in conservation had already developed. In between his courses preparing him for medical school, he attended college an extra year to write an unpublished manuscript on the history of forestry management in Idaho. He later said that it is  impossible to understand what's happening to modern forests without understanding the history of forestry.

He attended medical school at the University of Washington and did clinical clerkships in Idaho, Spokane, the Mayo Clinic, and Thailand. Yet to become the "enviro-doc," as he was later tagged, he first had to make an agonizing transition from his original calling: Third World relief doctor.

He worked in mission hospitals in Thailand and Kenya and was convinced that this was where his future would lie. Conditions were often primitive. Sometimes, he had to wear hip boots during surgery because there were no suction devices. Then, one night in Lugulu, Kenya, he was summoned to a primitive pediatric ward to perform a procedure on a child gasping for air, because of pneumonia brought on by measles.

"I remember as this little girl was dying, we tried to get the oxygen hooked up," said Osborn in a 1995 interview. "We finally did that and we got ready to do mouth-to-mouth. We turned the oxygen bottle on. The oxygen bottle was empty. The little girl died in her father's arms" (Jensen).

He said he sat under the stars afterwards and cried, shattered about what seemed the futility of his work. That night, he decided he wanted to come back home.

"I suppose that each of us has a point in our life where we've made a conscious decision to follow a certain path," said Osborn. "And I made a decision that night to try to stop the insanity of the destruction of the forests here in the region" (Jensen).

Lands Council

When he came back to Spokane as a medical resident -- with a constantly beeping pager on his belt -- he spent just about every spare minute of his life on environmental causes and forest conservation.

In fact, he founded his first environmental group in1983 in Sacred Heart Medical Center's intern’s "call room" -- where interns would rest between duties -- in Spokane. He and his fellow environmentally inclined interns named it the Spokane Resident Physician’s Action League, a name changed in 1985 to Inland Empire Public Lands Council -- soon to become the leading environmental group in Eastern Washington and north Idaho.

Medicine and Conservation

He went on staff in 1986 at Spokane's Veteran's Administration Medical Center as an internist and spent his entire career there. Yet he has always effectively juggled two highly demanding careers.

"I do two things," Osborn told an interviewer in 1991. "I do medicine and I do conservation. And that has basically been my life for six and a half years. My vacation time has been spent back on Capitol Hill, or going through Forest Service files, or photographing environmental damage" (Titone).

When people asked him how he reconciled his two passions of medicine and environmentalism, he referred them to a clause from the American Medical Association's Code of Ethics, taped to his office cabinet: "A physician shall recognize a responsibility to participate in activities contributing to an improved community" (Titone).

Reviled and Admired

His dogged determination and single-minded focus made him reviled in some circles, admired in others. Cecil Andrus (b. 1931), then Idaho governor and later U.S. Secretary of the Interior, once said, in the midst of a logging fight, "Osborn was as strident as anyone. He is a representative of those people that want it all" (Miller).

Once, during a confrontation at a small-town hearing in St. Maries. Idaho, an angry logger told him, "Did you ever watch the movie Tora Tora Tora (about the attack on Pearl Harbor)? St. Maries is the sleeping giant that is waking up. You had better watch out for us, doctor" (Landers, "So Much"). Some loggers later burned him in effigy.

Yet his admirers have been equally outspoken. "Spokane has turned out a number of superb environmentalists, but of them all, John Osborn is easily the best known and respected nationally," said Brock Evans (b. 1937), the vice president of the National Audubon Society, in 1991. "His strength goes beyond his commitment and his passion. It goes to the near-total sacrifice of his time and personal life to do only this" (Titone).

In 1989, a reporter described his Spokane bachelor apartment like this: "Seven metal file cabinets line two walls in the living room. That's 66 feet of clippings ... . His bed is a simple mattress on the floor. There are no stuffed chairs. No television" (Landers, "Osborn"). "I don't have time to waste gorking out in front of the tube," said Osborn (Landers, "Osborn").

For the National Forests

By 1985, the physicians' Action League had changed its name to the Inland Empire Public Lands Council (it later changed its name to simply Lands Council) and Osborn became the group's coordinator and driving force. He and his group were on the forefront of dozens of environmental fights and challenges during what he called a "wild and incredible" time (Kershner).

The 1980s and 1990s were particularly turbulent for the forests of the region for one overriding historical reason, according to Osborn. "We were at the end of the timber frontier," he said. "We had logged the continent. So these great battles have to be looked at against that historical backdrop" (Kershner).

This meant that the national forests were under pressure to supply more logs. Meanwhile, the region's logging towns were increasingly dependent on the flow of national forest logs. Osborn came to this conclusion that: "The Forest Service had plundered the forests to produce high volumes of timber at unsustainable levels" (Whitesell).

It was a message that neither the Forest Service nor the timber towns wanted to hear, but one Osborn felt he must deliver. He and the Lands Council published a newsletter titled "Transitions" almost monthly from 1988 to 2000, which carried variations on that basic message in nearly every issue.

He also became a public gadfly toward the Potlatch Corp., and the Weyerhaeuser logging family in particular, prompting Potlatch to complain in 2002 that Osborn was attempting to "embarrass" the company and the Weyerhaeuser family as way of "generating publicity for his cause" (Kramer).

Osborn was certainly not averse to publicly blasting politicians he believed were insufficiently dedicated to conservation, no matter their party. "President Clinton ... is responsible for the most evil betrayal in our country's conservation history," Osborn said after Clinton agreed to a budget-cutting bill in 1995 that would suspend certain logging laws (Foster).

Wilderness, Water, Wildlife

He also became deeply involved in the Sierra Club. He was on the executive committee of the Spokane chapter, was the chair of the Spokane-based Upper Columbia River Group for many years, and served as the conservation chair from 1985 to 2008. He also served for many years on the boards of the Washington Wilderness Coalition, the Idaho Conservation League, and the Idaho Wildlife Federation.

Over the decades, Osborn worked on hundreds of different issues relating to the region's forests, water. and wildlife. Yet in a process he likened to medical triage, certain issues demanded his and the Land Council's focus at different times.

In rough terms, the chronology looked like this:

  • 1983-1985: Wilderness protection in Washington and Idaho.
  • 1985 into the 1990s: National forest planning, which included issues of road-building and timber sales in the national forests of northeastern Washington and north Idaho. At one point, Osborn wrote a 500-page appeal of one national forest plan.
  • 1986-1987: "Square-mile clearcuts," a term referring to the checkerboard pattern of land ownership deriving from the legacy of the railroad land grants (Kershner). This was also the subject of, Railroads and Clearcuts, the 1995 book he collaborated on with Derrick Jensen and George Draffan.
  • 1988 through the present: Cleanup and Superfund issues in the Coeur d'Alene River basin and the Spokane River basin. This issue has also caused his opponents to brand him as a fearmonger and just another special interest group.

"I'm being charged with using scare tactics for pointing out the threat of lead in our watershed," said Osborn in 1996. "Frankly, lead IS pretty scary. ... It's not a special interest crusade to clean [our watersheds] up or to protect them from lawless salvage logging that compounds these problems" (Landers, "Activist").

Osborn won increasing recognition for these efforts. The Wilderness Society named him one of "Ten American Land Heroes" in 1996 and the Washington Environmental Council gave him one of its "Environmental Heroes" awards that same year. "John is almost superhuman," said a Wilderness Society spokesman (Landers, "Activist").

He was also devoting immense amounts of energy to his medical career. Just before he joined the Spokane VA staff, a new and mysterious disease began to ravage a number of veterans: AIDS. Osborn developed and ran the hospital's AIDS program for the next 23 years, in addition to his myriad other duties as an internist. In 2010, Osborn was named the chief of medicine for the Spokane VA Medical Center.

Rachel Paschal

In 1994, an event took place that changed his personal life. He was doing research for a book he was co-authoring for the Lands Council called Railroads and Clearcuts, when he asked Ralph Nader (b. 1934) for some research advice. Nader led Osborn to the University of Washington Law School's Center for Environmental Law and Policy (CELP). There, he met the center's co-founder and executive director: Rachael Paschal,  the woman he would later marry.

Paschal was born in 1956 in Waco, Texas, and was raised in South Pasadena, California. Her passion for environmental causes was ignited when she was 13 and saw oil-covered seabirds from the Santa Barbara oil spill. She went to the University of Washington and received a bachelor's degree in environmental studies in 1988 and a law degree from the UW Law School in 1991. She and UW law professor Ralph W. Johnson (1923-1999) co-founded the Center for Environmental Law and Policy (CELP) in 1993, which specializes in environmental water law issues.

Osborn and Paschal worked together on research for several years, but it wasn't until 1996 that they went on their first "date" -- although few other couples would consider it that. Actually, it was the annual meeting of the shareholders of Weyerhaeuser Corp., and Osborn embarked on a "lengthy statement" accusing Weyerhaeuser of overcutting timber lands and shirking its responsibilities.

Company chairman George Weyerhaeuser responded, "Thank you, Dr. Osborn, for that very interesting mixture of fact and fantasy" (Virgin). 

Combining Forces

This relationship between two of the state's leading environmental figures ripened over ensuing years. In 1999, Paschal resigned from CELP and moved to Spokane, where she and Osborn moved into a historic home they had purchased in the West Central neighborhood of Spokane. For Osborn, the days of mattresses on an apartment floor were over -- although the basement of their new house was soon jammed with file cabinets and document boxes.

They were married on August 12, 2000. During the nuptials, Osborn noted that it happened to be the "same date that Lewis and Clark first stepped into the Columbia Basin" (Kershner). Rachael Paschal took the name Rachael Paschal Osborn and developed a private practice in public-interest water law in Spokane.

In 2007, Rachael Paschal Osborn resumed the executive directorship of CELP and moved the headquarters from Seattle to Spokane. John Osborn became a member of CELP's board of directors. From that point on, John Osborn also became more deeply involved in water law, partly because, as he put it, he "married into water," and partly because water issues and forest issues are so crucially entwined.

The couple holds what might be a unique distinction in the annals of environmentalism. Both husband and wife were quoted by The New York Times on the same day -- April 9, 2009 -- in two separate stories about two different environmental issues. One was about a Yakima Basin water storage project, the other was about the problems of industrial-sized farms in the arid parts of Eastern Washington.

To Restore Water, To Protect the Aquifers

Rachael Paschal Osborn has been involved in many major cases both with CELP and in her own practice, many of which are involved in protecting the Spokane Aquifer, which is the major source of water for large areas of north Idaho and eastern Washington. In 2002, she represented labor unions and local environmental groups in successfully fighting a proposal to grant extensive water rights to several proposed power plants on the Rathdrum Prairie, which sits right above the aquifer. Previously, she had unsuccessfully fought a proposal to allow the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway to build a major refueling depot in Rathdrum, Idaho, atop the aquifer.

She also was deeply involved in the 2002 relicensing of the Sullivan Dam in northeast Washington and succeeded in securing an agreement mandating adequate minimum flows on Sullivan Creek.

In 2011, she represented local groups in a lawsuit challenging Washington State University's water usage on its new Palouse Ridge Golf Course. She also was the co-founder of the Western Land Exchange Project (now the Western Lands Project) and Washington Water Trust.

She summed up the goal of most her work in one succinct phrase: "To restore water to streams and protect drinking-water aquifers" (Kershner).

Nowhere can you see the results of that work more clearly than at the Spokane Falls in downtown Spokane. In 2009 when she won an agreement with Avista Utilities to restore enough flow to the Spokane River to make Spokane Falls roar seven days a week, 365 days a year. Previously, Avista's dams cut off the flow to a trickle during some of the summer and fall months.

"I had to go eyeball to eyeball with them to see who blinks," she said in a 2011 interview. "In the Osborn family, we don't blink much. John taught me not to be afraid of corporations" (Kershner).


Sources: Julie Titone, "Suffering the Enviro-Doc -- Environmental Policy of Dr. John Osborn," American Forests, September-October 1991; Rich Landers, "John Osborn," Spokesman-Review, November 5, 1989, p. D-12; Rich Landers, "So Much to Lose," Spokesman-Review, August 4, 1985, p. D-8; Rich Landers, "Andrus Forgets Idaho Forests National Gem," Spokesman-Review, May 17, 1988, p. C-1; Dean Miller, "Andrus Upset With Activists Over Timber," Spokesman-Review, May 7, 1988, p. A-6; Bill Virgin, "Stockholder Plan Wins Despite Opposition by Timber Company," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 17, 1996; Scott Streater, "Industrial Farms Could Leave Eastern Washington With Dry Wells," New York Times, April 9, 2009; Eryn Gable, "Wash.'s Yakima Basin Storage Project Dies -- Or Does It?" The New York Times, April 9, 2009; Derrick Jensen, Listening to the Land: Conversations About Nature, Culture and Eros (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1995); Jim Kershner, interview with John Osborn and Rachael Paschal Osborn, Spokane, March 26, 2011; J. Todd Foster, "Environmentalists Green With Anger," Spokesman-Review, July 1, 1995, p. B-1; Rebecca Nappi, "A Conservationist With Legal Grounding," Spokesman-Review, March 5, 2006, p. B-10; Rich Landers, "Spokane Activist Named American Land Hero," The Spokesman-Review, June 9, 1996, p. G-2; Edward Whitesell, editor, and Evergreen State College students, Defending Wild Washington: A Citizen's Action Guide (Seattle: Mountaineers Books, 2004); Becky Kramer, "Potlatch Shareholder Seeks Weyerhaeuser Link," Spokesman-Review, April 20, 2002; Derrick Jensen, George Draffan and John Osborn, Railroads and Clearcuts (Spokane: Inland Empire Public Lands Council, 1995).

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