Spokane Watershed Hero 2011

an interview with Dr. Dick Rivers

Rich Landers photo

December 5, 2008  (JO - John Osborn)

JO:  how did you become involved in conservation?


Dick Rivers:   My father:  I blame it all on him.  He took me with him fishing, and later hunting.   He built me a snake cage in which I would keep all manner of little critters that I kept during the spring, summer, and early fall – and then would set free.  So from my childhood I was interested in nature and the out-of-doors. 

I never got involved in environmental activities until President Ronald Reagan appointed James Watt as Secretary of Interior.  I was so outraged by James Watt – by his quotes and by what he was attempting to do - that I went out and gave $750 to the Sierra Club and became a life member.  It was really a subdued anger that got me involved.

JO:  perhaps you could summarize your work in conservation?

In 1975 I came out from New York to the Spokane VA, taking a position as a staff internist.  Shortly thereafter I became a union steward.  My nine years dealing with management put me in the right frame of mind to deal with agencies and industry representatives. 

Around 1987 I started to become a birder and, in 1988, I joined the board of Spokane Audubon.  Starting in 1989 and for the next five years, I coordinated their Christmas bird count. 

In 1990 I was elected co-president of Spokane Audubon along with Suzanne Hempleman.  We served in that position for 4 years.  That put me in touch with a lot of people and issues, from spotted owls and logging to salmon and hydropower.  Also around 1990 I started hearing a lot of propaganda about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) - about how important the North Slope was for oil production.  I organized my own backpacking trip and spent 8 days on the North Slope.   I took along my 11 year old son.  We  saw dozens of dall sheep, hundreds and hundreds of caribou, wolf, grizzly bear, arctic fox and golden eagles.  We even saw a musk oxen.  We brought along fishing poles and encountered the best fishing I’ve ever seen for arctic char, lake trout, and grayling. 

When I came back from Alaska, I started giving slide shows and presentations about the need to protect the  north slope of the ANWR.  Shortly thereafter I paid my own way to Washington D.C. to lobby issues related to ANWR.  Low and behold the citizen effort was a success.  President George H. Bush, the oil man, could not get Congress to support opening the “1002” areas of the North Slope to drilling. 

Over the next few years I lobbied in Olympia, and went back to Washington D.C. to lobby on reauthorizing the Endangered Species Act.  That was partly successful.  Although the Act was not reauthorized, neither was it dismantled.  So it remains in its original condition today.  No one was willing to touch it.  Around 1991 I gave a presentation on the ESA to the Spokane Chamber of Commerce.  I kept my flak jacket from that presentation for use years later when I went to Kennewick to speak at a public forum and advocate for taking out the 4 dams on the lower Snake River.


Around 1993 to 1994 I took part in over a half dozen meetings on the Colville National Forest as part of a stakeholders group.  The process was run by a mediator, out of which they produced a bound book of the group’s consensus on many issues for changes in forest management.  As far as I could see, our work was put on a back shelf somewhere, and the suggestions were never implemented.  From 1994 to 1996 I served on the board of The Lands Council.   And in 1995 I assisted the National Audubon Society by being the named  person with standing in a lawsuit filed by National Audubon against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The target of the lawsuit was the removal of cattle from a number of wildlife refuges, including Turnbull.  It was successful. 


During the 1990s I led dozens of field trips for Spokane Audubon, and assisted the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the BLM on many field projects, including biological surveys in central Washington holdings. 


From 1990 thru to 2010, I did an annual breeding bird survey for U.S Geological Survey (USGS).   These surveys have been ongoing since 1960 on some 2000 different routes in the United States.  The same routes are run each year.  The routes are 25 miles in length and the person doing the survey stops every half mile and identifies every bird that is heard or seen.  It requires you to identify all of the birds in eastern Washington by sound, so it involved a great deal of study on my part.  That information is used each year to compare trends in specific bird populations.   From these surveys it was found that between 1980 and 1998 there had been significant population declines in about 80 percent of all songbirds.


In the 1990s I became active with Save Our Wild Salmon (SOS).  I gave a presentation in a public forum in Kennewick as I already noted, and made trips to lobby on this issue to DC and Olympia. 

Around 2002 I actually became less environmentally involved. Instead  I became romantically involved.  In early 2003 Suzanne and I got married.


After that, in 2006, I became involved with Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and from 2007-09 with the Hunting and Fishing Conservation Coalition.  Through the coalition I provided input at public meetings, especially on the Idaho Panhandle and Colville National Forests -- meetings where Roadless Areas or ORV issues were often discussed.

Over the years, I’ve written many letters and occasional guest opinions for the Spokesman Review and the Colville newspaper on conservation issues.


I have also been involved in efforts to restore the Spokane River, testifying at public hearings and writing letters and trying to keep up on all the associated issues.

JO:  you were my attending physician and then colleague at the VA, and a conservation advocate:   with you, I’ve always seen science as foundational -- in your care for patients and for the environment.


Dick Rivers:  Science has been foundational for me in forming my worldview -- and my approach to dealing with problems.  I know that the people who are most successful in influencing public policy are the ones who approach it with relatively little emotion (at least with emotions hidden) and with reasonable arguments and facts.  That said, street theater can sometimes also play a role.

My past training in studying the scientific medical literature made me very much aware of the need for a control group when conducting experiments.  This concept extends to wildlife habitat.  I have several times explained to Forest Service officials the role of Roadless Areas as a control group in what is otherwise a massive and uncontrolled experiment that we call forest management.  I would call for more Roadless Areas to be left untouched as controls to represent more habitat types within the forest.


I problem-solve in a clinical paradigm without really thinking of it.    Environmental problems are complex -- like the internist who is presented with complicated patients every day in clinic. Very few patients have one illness.  It is a matter of prioritizing the most important problems while not ignoring the others.  And in the background always is a question of where you are going to invest your health care dollar, just as it is with ecological issues.

JO:  In recent decades in the Inland Northwest, conservation advocacy has been strongest when the “sporting” and “environmental” communities coalesce.  You yourself really embody that – hunter, angler, outdoor enthusiast, and environmental advocate (not to mention physician and scientist).

Dick Rivers:  When I was working fulltime I nonetheless made time to spend weeks out of each year wandering the backcountry with a field guide and binoculars -- and for a week each year with muzzleloader and bow and arrow. 

Yes, I’ve had successes in coordinating the sporting and environmental communities.  We’ve also had some failures.  On issues relating to ATVs, most of the sporting community opposed the extensive use of ATVs in the National Forests, especially off-road.  The sporting community (back when Art Solomon was executive officer and president of the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council) was really strong in preventing more dams on the lower Snake River – but in recent years less vigorous in removing the four dams on the lower Snake River. 

Trying to coordinate the environmental and sporting communities on the wolf issue has been rather disappointing, to say the least.  Too many in the sporting community would like to see the wolf once again exterminated.  Too many in the environmental community seem to not really care at all about ranchers, farmers with animals, or people with dogs – such as those people who live in Paradise Valley along the Yellowstone River (or scores of other river valleys adjacent to our National Forests).  Many if not most environmental organizations oppose the idea of hunting wolves whatsoever.  They don’t recognize hunting as a management tool.  They don’t take the long term view espoused by the biologists such as those who have worked with the Yellowstone wolves: the long term survival of wolves is more dependent on psychosocial human issues  than on wildlife biology issues. 

JO:  From your years of conservation advocacy, what messages about the future do you want carried to the next generation?


Dick Rivers:  I don’t feel totally pessimistic.  We’re still not there, but we are closer. I think there is room for optimism.  We can look around and see a lot of successes -- the result of relentless pressure.  Look at the Spokane River.  When I first moved here in 1975, raw sewage was routinely being dumped into the Spokane River. It was a lawsuit that stopped it -- and the threat of additional lawsuits by well-informed people that resulted in investing over $100 million to build the sewage treatment facility.   I knew a resident of Suncrest who had a dog that died after drinking from Long Lake. He was so incensed at   at the loss of his dog that he filed that initial legal action.  

My message to people is don’t be afraid to get angry.  But make it a productive anger. 


JO:  Any closing thoughts?

Dick Rivers:  I really got involved in environmental issues reluctantly.  But it’s just not possible to have wildlife and their habitat as one your prime values and do nothing about it.  It’s just not possible.


It’s too easy to get burned out of activism.  You look around you and you always see someone who is more involved and into more issues than you, or is better informed, more articulate, etc.  But government agencies and legislators are never moved by a single person.  They take notice when they see a meeting room packed by people speaking up on behalf of the Spokane River, for instance.  I suggest to everyone to never feel embarrassed because someone else is doing more.  Choose the issues that interest you and keep informed, doing what you can, because it all matters.