Spokane Watershed Heroes 2008

Julian Powers & Jane Cunningham  --  Buell and Donna Hollister

an interview with Buell and Donna Hollister

December 5, 2008  (JO - John Osborn, RPO - Rachael Paschal Osborn)

JO:  How did you two become activists?

Buell:   When I was a boy we lived in the Spokane Valley and had a couple of cows.  My brother’s and my job was to take our cows down Flora Road to the Spokane River, where there was an expanse of bunch grass.  We spent all our time on the Spokane River -- skipping rocks, swimming.  Then we moved to a place along the Corbin Ditch carrying water to all the farms in that area.  The water was warm, wonderful to swim in. I only tried fishing in the river once.

In 1974 we went to the Russell Theater and saw David Brower.  He had a presentation where he compressed the timeline of the planet into 24 hours, and humans arrived only in the last second.  That really triggered my activism. I joined the Kootenai Environmental Alliance (KEA) while I was still working.  I came to know Art Manley, Manny Scheer, the Reeds, John Bentley, and all those people who were associated with the nucleus of KEA.  It went from there – the Spokane and the Coeur d’Alene rivers were all a big part of it.

I then bought the book The Living Earth -- how the costs of what we do to rivers aren’t factored in, and the larger human health and ecological impacts that helped concentrate my concern with the rivers.  

Donna:  Buell just put his whole self into it – his heart and his body into environmental issues.  I thought, I’ve got to support him.

I was certainly an environmentalist growing up. I used to swim in the Little Spokane -- the River was always such a beautiful sight to us.  Then we got involved in trying to stop the pollution.

We can go right down the years – seems like we were involved in everything – including the BNSF depot, the power plants. Once you get caught up into it, there’s no looking back:  one issue after another.  Once you think you’ve got one thing resolved, another comes up.  And we raised our kids to be environmentalists.  They respect the predators, the wildlife, and the trees.  If it hadn’t been for Buell I would have left the activism of it.  He’s stayed in it, so I have too.

Buell:   You’ve been a big part of it Donna.  I think we’ve done a lot to clean up many of the sources of pollution.  There’s still a great deal left to do. 

I worked at Armours where they had a pipe that dumped all the offal right into the Spokane River. And raw sewage was dumped into the River.  I think we have made some really progressive steps, but we still have problems with sewage effluent and industrial waste.  When we got involved in the cleanup of the mine wastes from the Coeur d’Alene Mining District, we realized what had been done.  Look how long it took to realize all the contaminants that came downstream.  People casually polluted without any thought of consequences. 

Today regulatory agencies are a little better than in the past. That gives us encouragement.  We’ve got a long way to go.  I’m grateful for Expo 74.  I think it was a ruse, but a lot of good came out of it.  We got that wonderful park, that made the river such an asset to the area.

JO:  Could you two describe your involvement in the protection of the Aquifer – both of you were extensively involved in the efforts to stop the BNSF fuel depot and the power plants.

Buell:  Lucy Fueller and Wayne Bailey called and asked if they could make a presentation to KEA on the proposed BNSF fuel depot (I was president of KEA at the time).  There was another guy, Chute, in the publishing business.  They came and made their presentation.  At the end they said they needed money and we raised several hundred dollars at that meeting.   

We went to a series of meetings – a wonderful group, mostly conservative who didn’t want the government interfering with business, but now they wanted help from the government to stop the fuel depot. We raised a lot of money.  I was on the Hauser Lake Watershed Board and we raised a couple thousand dollars for Friends of the Aquifer. It was a big boost and exciting.  There were three hearings on the fuel depot. All three Hearing Officers recommended rejecting the BNSF proposal but the Kootenai County Commissioners in a two to one vote overruled the final recommendation.   

The aquifer protection effort morphed into the fight to stop the power plants.  We got involved in that, which was a great success thanks to the wonderful legal representation from Rachael [Paschal Osborn].

I think the power plant issue triggered all of the activity that followed-the Bi-State Commission, the GWMA (Ground Water Management Area).  It raised public awareness of the Aquifer.  We had a  meeting in Coeur d’Alene and the room was full when Ken Lustig and Rachael spoke about contesting the power-plants water permit application -i t really triggered interest in the Aquifer.

Donna:  When they started to develop Kootenai County and all those houses on  the prairie, we got involved in land use issues too.  There was always some kind of issue we were involved in.

Buell:  We went to a meeting at the racetrack and talked about the Aquifer on a quantitative basis. There was a discussion about conservation and how the most effective incentive is pricing.  At that time Post Falls was charging 65 cents for ever 1000 gallons of water used.  At Hauser the cost was ten dollars for the first 10,000 gallons but then it progressively increased with added use.  When water is cheap, people are not inclined to conserve.

Donna:  Post Falls has worked with KEA to reduce water consumption, mostly by limiting sprinkler hours.  At least they believe in conservation.  I don’t understand the people in Spokane objecting to Mayor Verner’s  proposal to limiting sprinkling hours

Buell:  It’s because of the illusion of abundance.  People think we have an unlimited amount of water in the [Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie] Aquifer.  I saw it on the [Rathdrum] Prairie, where water was so cheap, they’d leave sprinklers running in one place for 24 hours.  If water users had to pay appropriately they’d use it more wisely.  But that’s the pattern throughout the West.  It’s so cheap, why bother to conserve.  I’m concerned about Idaho continuing to issue permits.  Many people feel – it’s our water so they have a right to take it.

JO:  Explain how issuing water rights in Idaho harms the Spokane River.

Buell:  Because pumping water out of the aquifer in Idaho is taking water from the Spokane River down here in Washington. 

Donna:  I think we should probably stop accusing Idaho of always doing something wrong.  I think Washington is doing the wrong thing too. But why can’t they talk about it?

JO:  The two of you could have done many things with your time.  But you chose to work to protect the Spokane Aquifer and River.  Why?

Donna:  I’m afraid that water is going to become a commodity before too long.  We’re going to have to pay for every drop we use and it’s not going to be there – the quantity.  That’s obvious is it not – the way we’re using it?  The aquifer can’t be filling up as fast as we’re using it.

JO:  It’s showing up in the Spokane River.

Donna:  Yes, it’s showing up in the River.

JO:  The two of you have worked on issues for over 30 years? 

Buell:  I grew up in rural areas, on a farm.  I had that connection with nature, growing up.  I think it was natural to get engaged on matters involving the natural world.  It was certainly more than water.  We initially got involved in forest issues, but it’s all related – forests determine the status of our water.  But I grew up around the Spokane River – and came to realize what a treasure it is. 

Donna:   For a long time they paid no attention to the Spokane River.  Even after Expo 74, there were years when little attention was paid to the river. This year when the River was high, people gathered at the River to see the Waterfalls.

Buell:  I think that Expo started a public awareness of the River. It gave people access, took out the ugly train station, put in the gondola.  The River has always been important to us.  We’d take the kids swimming over at Corbin Park on the River.  It just stays with you – you make that connection with the River.  I think it’s essential to have that attachment and to get involved in protecting rivers.  It was pretty late though when we learned the connections between the Aquifer and the River.  Donna and I learned a lot with the power plant and fuel depot cases.

JO:  How did you two work together as a couple?

Donna:  I typed all Buell’s letters, and corrected them.

Buell:  She’d tell me she didn’t like things and we’d discuss and edit.

Donna:  We just did things because it was there – someone had to do it. 

Buell:  We raised some beautiful children.

Donna:  We worked as a team. Buell kept KEA going for 5 years.  We had a lot of help from Mike Mihelich, John Bentley, George Brabb and others.

Buell:  Mike is the most wonderful person.  He’s shy, but does great work. And Corinne put the newsletter together all those years.  It was a great collaborative effort.

Donna and I worked very constructively together on the farm.  I ran a business in Spokane, and Donna kept things going at home and on the farm while I was at work.  The kids learned to work. They were buckin’ bales.  We had a wonderful pond.  The family dog Buffer was always with the kids.  They were always down at the pond, swimming and playing.  One of the conditions of selling the farm is that we kept a bit of it so they could go visit.  We never had problems with the kids because they were too busy.  

We were a great team.  Donna took care of my business books. If I’d scribble out a letter, she’d sit down at the Royal Portable and type it out.  Then an electric typewriter, and finally to the computer.  

We met a lot of good people along the way.  My favorite was Art Manley.  He knew where the good huckleberries were.  Art was a serious guy.  I’d try to make him laugh and then he’d say – “well anyway.”  I could not believe the people voted him out of office – it was dumbfounding.  Art did so much – he had that close connection with Frank Church and they got the Upper Priest Lake preserved and Mowry Park.  He knew the connections to get stuff done.

JO:  You two have a lifetime of wisdoms to pass along to others. What do you want people to know or think about?

BH:  I ran for the state legislature in 1994.  I was advised not to mention the environment. I’d like to see the time when it was a matter of personal pride to speak for the environment.  It’s disconcerting to me that we have to be self-conscious about asserting our devotion to the natural world.  I’m hoping we have contributed something to that effort by our actions.  I know people respect us because we have tried to avoid confrontation, but address issues in a positive and constructive way.  I know it’s paid off.  Still, we have this problem of prevalent hostility towards the natural world from so many quarters.  So I’m hoping young people coming up will find the need and commitment to speak out.

Our culture predisposes us to lack respect for he natural world.  It has about reached its limit.  I think we are headed for some devastating impacts.  I think that’s what we’ve tried to avoid.

Donna:  We just have to change our lives a little bit here.  Become more simple in what we buy and how we live, in order to save the planet.  We can’t emphasize enough that global warming is here and we need to do something about it.  As far as water is concerned, we don’t need all the lawns, we don’t need to keep things green.  You can landscape your yard with nice bushes that don’t require the water.  If more people quit wasting water, change will come.

Buell:  We have a DVD of Jane Goodall talking about children and nature.  How important it is for us as adults to introduce our children to the wonders of nature. Children are receptive.  The same day we heard David Brower, there was a fellow from the Colorado Environmental Institute who talked about childhood education.  He lamented that there was so little about the environment in the process.  I’m so grateful that our children had the experience of that connection with nature.  The beauty, the reverence – it’s a natural response of children. We have some environmental education – focused on 5th and 6th graders, but then it’s dropped.  I think it was Thomas Berry who made that observation about our connection with nature: the universe is our university.  I just hope that somehow we can motivate our young people to become more aware of the natural world around us.  I remember Mike [Mihelich] taking us up to that cedar grove in the Coeur d’Alene forest.  Such a magnificent experience, seeing trees 5 feet in diameter. 

I supposed it’s natural not to be completely satisfied.  Wish I’d been more involved in the dam relicensing.  I’ve just been scanning one of Tim Palmer’s books and admiring his work on rivers.

Donna:   The question is, “if you ‘re not an environmentalist, what are you?”  

Buell:  You look back and say, You could always have done more.  You have to be optimistic.  We are progressing.  Environmental awareness is increasing.  We saw young people so enthusiastic about Obama – they seem to be aware of things.  I’m hopeful that people will make a greater commitment to the natural world.  I know we have had trouble bringing young people into KEA.

That’s a problem-getting young people engaged.  As our population increases, the demand will become increasingly urgent.