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Share the Columbia's Riches, Bishops Ask

by Lisa Stiffler
Seattle Post-Intelligencer - February 23, 2001

3 years in making, pastoral letter calls for end to greed

We've dammed it, fished it and polluted it. Now a dozen Catholic bishops are asking those of us who live in the Northwest to put aside our greed and self-interest to protect and share the Columbia River watershed.

Yesterday, an international coalition of bishops released a pastoral letter urging Catholics and "all people of good will" to come together and develop a communal vision for the watershed.

In a letter titled "The Columbia River Watershed: Caring for Creation and the Common Good," the religious leaders explain that by divine order humans are responsible for preserving the river and equitably sharing its limited resources.

"We are stewards of God's very precious creation," said the Rev. George Thomas, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Seattle.

The religious leaders outlined 10 ways to take action on the issue. They include considering the common good, protecting wildlife, respecting the dignity and traditions of indigenous peoples, promoting justice for the poor, conserving energy and promoting responsible business practices.

Pastoral letters are instructional publications released periodically to address social, economic and environmental issues. Last year, bishops from Washington published a letter condemning capital punishment. Yesterday's letter has gotten worldwide attention because it brought together international religious leaders to focus on a regional topic.

Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, the chairman of the Columbia River Pastoral Letter Project, said the church has traditionally been concerned about the environment.

"It is a very religious issue for us," agreed Archbishop Alex Brunett of Seattle.

The project leading to the Columbia watershed document was initiated in 1997. There were a series of meetings in which concerned parties, including fishermen, farmers and Native Americans, weighed in on the issue.

This was followed by a number of hearings open to anyone wanting to express their views.

The energy shortage and concerns about salmon survival give added importance to their letter.

"It's made this statement more timely and appropriate than ever before," Skylstad said.

The document addresses topics such as the controversy over dams and salmon, but provides no easy answers and urges more scientific research.

The letter "gives people an ethical and spiritual way to look at an issue that is usually looked at economically and politically," said Loretta Jancoski, former dean of Seattle University's School of Theology and Ministry and a member of the project's steering committee.

The bishops, who represent dioceses in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and British Columbia, know their request that people work together is a difficult one.

The 259,000 square miles of watershed is home to a disparate range of interests.

Some residents rely on the river for irrigation and transportation; for others it has important spiritual and cultural significance.

"There clearly are competing values," Skylstad said.

But the religious leaders ask people to put their differences aside and strive for the common good.

The publication calls "for a thorough, humble and introspective evaluation that seeks to eliminate both economic greed that fails to respect the environment, and ecological elitism that lacks a proper regard for the legitimate rights and property of others."

The letter recounts historical uses of the river, how it came to its present state and visions for the future of the watershed. It makes biblical references supporting the bishops' call for involvement. There is also an accompanying poem on the Columbia River.

Great care was taken so no one would be alienated by the document. Those who damaged the river are not condemned by name; the tone is gently chiding.

The letter is available online at and in a booklet form. A study guide is also available, and a video will be released in a few months. There will be a teach-in March 3 at the University of Portland.

Lisa Stiffler
Share the Columbia's Riches, Bishops Ask
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 23, 2001

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