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Suffering the enviro-doc.

Dr. John J. Osborn sat across the table from George Leonard, the U.S. Forest Service's second-in-command. Leonard had flown to the Northwest on Forest Service business, and, hearing of the visit, Dr. Osborn had arranged to get together with Leonard to discuss timber harvest in the inland old-growth forests. The meeting had been tense but civil.

Civil, that is, until Leonard, associate chief of the federal agency, said: "By any objective measure, the forests of the Northwest are in better shape than ever."

At that, the normally soft-spoken physician exploded. "Let me assure you, Mr. Leonard, the Forest Service is trashing these forests!"

"That doctor from Spokane"-as he's known to many residents of timber communities in eastern Washington and northern Idaho-was at it again.

People in these towns put the same distasteful spin on the phrase as they do on the word preservationist," another term many in the timber industry use to describe this physician-activist. They're used to seeing Dr. Osborn on the evening news. When he's on the tube, it's usually because he has held a press conference to repeat his diagnosis that the end of America's timber frontier is nigh. In the estimation of this Spokane internist, the Northwest's forests are suffering from industrial abuse and political apathy.

In scalpel-sharp contrast are the heroic terms used by conservationists when they speak of Osborn. "Spokane has turned out a number of superb environmentalists, but of them all, John Osborn is easily the best known and respected nationally," says Brock Evans, vice president of the National Audubon Society. "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. "

Even Osborn's critics are amazed at his commitment. Many of them ask the same question that admirers ask: How does a doctor find time to talk to the press, write voluminous appeals criticizing national-forest management plans, testify before Congress, consult with lawyers, take an active role in a fistful of environmental organizations, and even produce a monthly newsletter?

Osborn, a 35-year-old bachelor, fields the question easily: "I do two things. I do medicine and I do conservation. And that has basically been my life for 61/2 years. My vacation time has been spent back on Capitol Hill, or going through Forest Service files, or photographing environmental damage."

And why did he choose a cause so unrelated to medicine?

To answer this one, the internist points to the American Medical Association's Code of Ethics. A copy is taped to a file cabinet in his office at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Spokane. He reads one principle aloud: "A physician shall recognize a responsibility to participate in activities contributing to an improved community."

Osborn interprets "community" on a grand scale as a world facing ecological disaster. He also takes it to mean the timber towns where he has been derided and even hung in effigy. Though he has ample disdain for many decisions made in forest-industry boardrooms, he counts mill-workers and loggers among his patients. He says he fears their families will suffer when corporate over-cutting of the forests has destroyed the natural resource on which they depend.

'I love taking care of people, and I care very much what happens both to my patients and the forests, and to the communities that depend on those forests," he explains.

The need for a sustainable level of timber harvest is a key issue for Osborn; it's the issue that took him to that meeting with George Leonard. He had heard that Leonard was in Idaho to discuss how forests in the northern Rockies had fallen far behind the agency's harvest goals. Osborn asked if the associate chief would meet with him and other members of the Inland Empire Public Lands Council.

Osborn is president of the council. It is a coalition of sporting and environmental groups that focuses primarily on the 1.1-million-acre Colville National Forest of northeastern Washington and the Idaho Panhandle National Forests, 2.5 million acres that nudge up against the Canadian border.

Under Osborn's leadership, the lands council has grown in six years from a tiny Spokane group called the Physicians Action League to an organization with a full-time director, a $100,000 annual budget, and a Forest Watch program that relies on a network of activists to monitor national-forest activities at the ranger-district level.

Osborn is most proud of his role as editor of the council's monthly newsletter, Transitions. Each edition focuses on a single topic, such as watershed protection or Canadian forests. Each contains an array of news clippings from Osborn's own voluminous files and an editorial that he writes.

Osborn calls the publication "my working historical thesis on the end of the timber frontier." The customary press run of nearly 10,000 copies goes to lands council members, land managers, the media, and political leaders.

"We send packets to leaders in the sporting and environmental communities," Osborn says. "We send out cases of Transitions to areas where people may be able to use large quantities. The recent issue on Canada went to Edmonton, Calgary, Victoria, Vancouver. People in Calgary asked for a separate press run."

Osborn has put 160,000 miles on his rusty pickup doing work not only for the lands council but also for the Sierra Club (he's conservation chair of the Northern Rockies chapter), the Washington Wilderness Coalition and Idaho Wildlife Federation (he serves on both boards), and the Idaho Conservation League (he is regional representative for northern Idaho).

"I look forward to those weekends when there are no board meetings," he says.

Osborn's activism is getting a lot of attention. Publications that have taken note include National Wildlife magazine, which in 1989 listed him among 10 conservationists making a significant difference through their work. He has escorted reporters for NewsWeek and the Wall Street Journal into the woods to show evidence of what he calls the liquidation" of corporate forest-lands.

After the Wall Street Journal quoted Osborn in a 1990 front-page article critical of Plum Creek Timber Company, officials from the firm invited Osborn on a tour of logging activities in north Idaho's St. Joe River drainage. Once the company helicopter landed, discussion continued as physician and officials walked a logging road.

The slender doctor took the occasion to deliver a lecture. He pressed his hiking boots into the season's first snow and complimented company managers for their experiments with the environmentally sensitive New Forestry (see "Will' new Forestry' save Old Forests?" on page 49).

"But on the scales of social justice," the doctor continued, "does this effort make up for what Plum Creek and other timber companies like you have done? I don't think history will deal kindly with you."

Back at the medical center, admiring co-workers have given Osborn a symbolic gift, a ceramic spotted owl that perches on his office windowsill. Although he's concerned about protecting the coastal forests that are home to the celebrated northern spotted owl, Osborn's activism is focused on the northern Rockies, that rugged area between the Continental Divide and the Cascade Crest that's as vulnerable, he says, as it is beautiful.

"It's wild country," he boasts, "home to grizzly bears, to the nation's only herd of woodland caribou, to wild runs of salmon and steelhead, to world-class elk herds. "

There are photos in his office, too. One shows a hand deformed by leprosy. It's, a reminder of the three months of his residency that he spent in Thailand. "My plans had been to go into Third World medicine and specialize in infectious disease," he explains.

He changed his mind during another overseas stint, this one in Lugulu, Kenya. There he found children dying from measles and diarrhea, and medical staffs working without the most basic equipment.

The health problems in Africa were staggering, but Osborn found time to reflect on a different social issue, what he calls the "incredible injustice" of environmental damage back home.

"It's curious how you make big decisions, and I made one of those in Lugulu at three in the morning after watching another child die," Osborn recalls. "Do I pursue my career in tropical medicine, or do I return to the States and work on forest issues?"

His decision to return may be rooted in a childhood spent in Bellingham, Washington, and Boise, Idaho. He was the middle child of five; his father, an IBM executive, took the three boys fishing and bird hunting. The young Osborn also took part in Indian Guides and Boy Scouts, and treasured the mountains not so much for their pines as for their slopes. Ski-racing was a passion.

One way he paid for skiing, as well as much of his education, was by working for the Forest Service. For two summers, that meant cleaning outhouses and roadsides. For five more, it meant fighting forest fires. He likens catastrophic fires to war: "You're there when people die. You learn to care very much for your organization."

He put in a fifth year as an undergraduate at The College of Idaho in Caldwell, largely so he could write a book on the history of Idaho forest management (the manuscript was never published). He fought fires up until his second year at the University of Washington Medical School.

After he arrived in Spokane to begin his residency, Osborn's image of the Forest Service began to tarnish. He concluded that the agency was ignoring its conservationist roots and was actually supervising the destruction of the region's national forests.

In November 1983, he attended a meeting of area conservation leaders. He had in mind volunteering "an hour here and there" to help work for the preservation of wilderness areas in Idaho (the state border is only 20 miles east of Spokane). "I asked who was working on Idaho wilderness issues, and no one was," he recalls. "It was one of those times when you have this sinking feeling that you shouldn't have asked the question. "

He took on the task, and conservation work began to consume his little free time. In 1984, he made his first trip to Washington to appear before a congressional subcommittee. He took with him 350 letters from the medical community in support of wilderness protection for Idaho's Mallard Larkins roadless area, an issue on which Congress has yet to act.

"That first time I went to testify, I was very frightened. I was used to being around hunters, outfitters, and guides-people who sometimes have trouble finding a suit and tie. And here were these people with their Gucci shoes, an army of high-paid lobbyists who work the Hill. "

Osborn is more at ease before an audience these days. He also has a way of making other environmentalists comfortable and able to work together, according to Suzanne Hempleman, president of the Audubon Society's Spokane chapter. "He has a real unique way of drawing everyone together that makes them twice as powerful," she says. People don't resent John, because he doesn't try to take any power. He's the first one to try to pull people to the front, and build them up. "

Hempleman notes that Osborn puts money as well as time into his conservation work. He drives his aging pickup, lives in a small apartment near the hospital, and often pays for those lobbying trips to Washington. Suzanne Hempleman is one of the few who see both of Osborn's worlds. She is a psychiatric social worker in the VA hospital's AIDS program, which he supervises and helped create.

The AIDS patients, mostly in their 20s and 30s, are very different from the retirees Osborn sees as supervisor of the hospital's 60-bed nursing home. They are also the patients whose cases strain his tightly scheduled life.

"Things can get very crazy," he says. "These people get very sick very quickly." Osborn admits that sometimes his environmental work means that a physician less experienced in AIDS treatment is left with one of his patients. The same would be true for any doctor who needs time away for personal or professional reasons, he points out.

Dr. Robert Kroeger, a fellow Veterans Administration staffer, compliments Osborn's "remarkable level of activism." Kroeger adds, "I really admire that he takes a stance that's reasonable and holds to it. I think in a short time I would become radical. "

"Radical" might be too light a word for the way some people view Osborn. Attorney Pete Wilson, a civic leader in Bonners Ferry, Idaho, believes that Osborn's volleys against the timber industry end up hurting innocent women and children. "I've never met him," says Wilson, "but I think of him as the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of the region. As a doctor he's busy trying to save lives; as a preservationist he's not giving concern to the lives of the people in the timber communities. "

At the time I visited the office of former U.S. Senator Jim McClure, it was no place to find fans of the environmental doctor. Osborn repeatedly testified against forest-related legislation sponsored by the powerful Idaho Republican, who retired last year. McClure aide H.D. Palmer says Osborn is guilty of oversimplifying complex public lands issues in order to rile people.

"I agree the issues are complex," Osborn responds. "In much the same way as a physician is challenged to translate medical jargon into terms understandable to a patient, conservationists are faced with translating thousands of pages of documents and data into messages--'sound bites'-- that the public can understand. "

Where Osborn sees necessary simplification, Palmer sees radicalism. "Because he's one of those people who shouts the loudest and says the most outrageous things, he gets the most news coverage, " Palmer says.

Osborn may be a lightning rod for such criticism because he's "a little harder-nosed about some things, and also because in the end he's been shown to be right," says Dennis Baird of the Idaho Environmental Council. "He's also blunt. He'll often say things in two words which if said in six words would come across more softly."

Bluntness is something admired by Ed Schultz, supervisor of eastern Washington's Colville National Forest and someone whose policies are frequently targeted by Osborn. "I think Dr. John has earned his reputation and respect for his expertise," Schultz says. "He's not suave or politic, but he believes in what he's doing. He gets emotionally involved in these things, and he reacts accordingly." Schultz recalls being in a meeting at which Osborn's colleagues had to settle him down when his emotions ran too high.

Osborn, who calls himself "the dullest person in the world," doesn't share that particular recollection, but he concedes it can be difficult not to get emotional. Conservation work, he says, "is like caring for someone you love arid trying still to be objective in your diagnosis and treatment. "

One man familiar with Osborn's environmental diagnoses is Doug Floyd, editorial page editor for the Spokesman-Review and Spokane Chronicle, "Invariably, if we've editorialized on an issue he's involved in and we've taken an opposite stand, John is on the phone the first thing that morning," says Floyd. "He's never belligerent or shrill. His attitude seems to be, Those yo-yos still don't understand. I guess I have to do more educating.' "

Floyd calls Osborn serious, single-minded, and deeply informed. "He does a lot to defuse the notion of doctors who are rolling in dough and taking afternoons off to play golf. "

Evans, the Audubon official, says it's rare in his experience for a physician to be an environmental activist. The professional status can be a plus or minus, says Evans. "Those in favor of logging say, What's a doctor know about these things?' On the other hand, doctors have a tremendous amount of credibility in our culture. "

Osborn believes the efforts of conservationists are starting to pay off, at least in terms of public awareness of forest issues. But the road ahead looks as long and winding as a mountain trail, and he seems resigned to the sacrifices he must make to keep up his dual career.

He remarks wistfully about people who have a family life, and he heads nightly for an apartment dominated by filing cabinets, forest maps, and computer gear. He says he is losing hope that he will ever return to tropical medicine, although he has found a bit of the "Third World" working for the Veterans Administration, which he likens to a medical safetey net, especially for the elderly poor.

Both medicine and conservation work bring satisfaction as well as despair, Osborn concludes. Sometimes, the emotions overlap. Such was the case on one trip he made to the forest to photograph clearcuts.

"I remember watching the sun go down," he says, obviously recalling the despair he felt as he looked at the denuded landscape. "I was drinking some wine, sitting on a D-10 bulldozer, and thinking, What a strange world this is.'

As for the satisfaction, it lurks somewhere deeper-somewhere down inside Dr. John Osborn, earth healer.
COPYRIGHT 1991 American Forests
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Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:environmental policy of Dr. John Osborn
Author:Titone, Julie
Publication:American Forests
Date:Sep 1, 1991
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