the film
Commentaries and editorials

Bishops Urge Conservation of Columbia River

by Sally Macdonald, Religion reporter
Seattle Times - February 22, 2001

Twelve Roman Catholic bishops will release an unprecedented report today urging people to be better stewards of the Columbia River watershed.

The 18-page pastoral letter, signed by bishops from Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho and British Columbia, urges people to view the Columbia as the spiritual lifeblood of a region winding along 1,200 miles of river and drained by thousands of miles of its tributaries.

The letter, "The Columbia River Watershed: Caring for Creation and the Common Good," is addressed to Catholics and "people of good will" who depend on the river for their livelihood, food and recreation but who worry that its resources are dwindling.

It was completed after more than three years of study and incorporates the reflection of hundreds of "consultants" - those who work in industry, agriculture and fishing; educators; Native Americans; theologians; environmentalists; and community organizers.

The final product is not critical of how people have used the river in the past. Rather, it suggests 10 "considerations for action" to "effect a spiritual, social and ecological transformation" of the watershed. Such actions would include saving salmon, conserving energy and responsible forestry practices.

"We recognize the great contributions that our ancestors made to this region," the bishops wrote. "The original native inhabitants and the early ranchers, farmers, fishers and loggers struggled against almost insurmountable odds to carve out a home in this sometimes inhospitable land. We recognize that damage to the watershed may have been caused by financial need and lack of knowledge more than by a lack of appreciation for the environment."

The pastoral letter is welcomed by environmentalists of other faiths - even if they may differ as to the meaning of stewardship.

"It is the most serious attempt by a religious body in this area to address the environment as a serious issue," said the Rev. Jim Mulligan, director of Earth Ministry, a Seattle-based ecumenical group that takes a spiritual view of the environment. "There's a Christian tradition that says creation is important, creation is not humankind's resource bank. The Earth is the Lord's."

Even so, there are disputes among Christians over what stewardship means, Mulligan says - over whether humans can have dominion over the world and still treat it kindly.

The letter encourages environmentalists to recognize "that farmers, ranchers and other landowners and workers are not their enemies. It is equally important that the latter groups seek to better understand environmental concerns," according to a statement from the Archdiocese of Seattle. "Protection of the land is a common cause promoted more effectively through active cooperation than through contentious wrangling."

The report is signed by Archbishops Alex Brunett, Seattle, and John Vlazny, Portland; retired Archbishops Raymond Hunthausen, Seattle, and Thomas Connolly, Bend, Ore.; Bishops Carlos Sevilla, Yakima, William Skylstad, Spokane, Robert Vasa, Bend, Eugene Cooney, Nelson, B.C., Michael Driscoll, Boise, and Robert Morlino, Helena; and Auxiliary Bishops George Thomas, Seattle, and Kenneth Steiner, Portland.

Such pastoral decrees are unusual - the U.S. Catholic bishops have used them periodically as tools to teach Catholics about war and peace, the economy, poverty and the environment. But this document is different because it crosses international boundaries.

The final draft copy was published in 1999, and the work has been honored as a "Sacred Gift for a Living Planet" by the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Alliance of Religions and Conservation.

The letter is being unveiled simultaneously today at news conferences in Seattle and Portland and is being released in English, Spanish and French on the project Web site,

A guide is being prepared for parishes and other groups, and a video is to be released soon. Several dialogues and teach-ins are planned, including one March 3 at the University of Portland.

Sally Macdonald, Religion reporter
Bishops Urge Conservation of Columbia River
Seattle Times Company, February 22, 2001

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation