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River Stories Illustrate Bishops' Charge
to Care for the Columbia

by Harry Esteve, staff writer
The Oregonian, March 4, 2001

A Catholic "teach in" Saturday promotes better ecological stewardship

Don Parsons, an avid fly fisherman, remembers catching a salmon with his bare hands in an irrigation ditch hundreds of miles from the Pacific Ocean and marveling at the creature's resilience before letting it go.

Elizabeth Woody, poet, remembers watching her great aunts haul 70-pound salmon on their backs after the men of her tribe had netted them out of the Columbia River at the now submerged Celilo Falls.

These stories, presented Saturday at a Catholic "teach in" about the Columbia watershed, show how deeply connected Northwesterners are to the vast river system, leaders of the event said.

And it's that connection -- whether spiritual or physical -- that gives hope for the eventual restoration and preservation of the environmentally imperiled watershed.

"The river flows through our lives in ways we don't even know," said J.L. Drouhard, of the Archdiocese of Seattle. "Water is life for us on many different levels."

Drouhard is among those who helped research and publish a pastoral letter, released last month by 12 Catholic bishops from the United States and Canada, on the Northwest's biggest environmental crisis -- the decline of salmon caused by the degradation of the Columbia Basin. Titled "The Columbia River Watershed: Caring for Creation and the Common Good," the letter offered a set of principles for better ecological stewardship.

Saturday's event, which attracted about 180 participants to the University of Portland, was aimed at bringing the themes of the letter closer to the people it addresses.

"It's easy to go through life for years without really thinking about the watershed," said the Rev. Charles Lienert, Vicar of Clergy for the Archdiocese of Portland. That changes, however, when people are forced to stop watering their lawns, when the power goes out or when we're told we can't go fishing because the fish have disappeared, he said.

But beyond the everyday benefits of the river, there is a powerful spiritual relationship between people and water, one that stretches back thousands of years, he said. Native American grief over the inundation of Celilo Falls by The Dalles Dam is tantamount to what Catholics would feel if the Vatican were destroyed, Lienert said.

With the letter, the Catholic Church hopes to add a new element to the debate over how to manage the various, conflicting uses of the Columbia. The letter urges actions that reflect biblical teachings of caring for God's creations and that take into account the struggles and values of such diverse groups as Native Americans, farmers and recreationists.

Ann Werner, a Portland resident who attended Saturday's meeting, said she thinks the church is on the right track. Although she's not Catholic, she believes the principles contained in the letter will have broad appeal across religions. It also might reach people who have begun to tune out the ongoing debate about how to protect Columbia salmon.

"If it comes from within the church, it reaches a whole different group of people who may not want to go to another government meeting," Werner said.

She made her points to a handful of other participants who had broken into small groups to swap personal stories of growing up along rivers and creeks, swimming in now-polluted streams and watching the encroachment of civilization destroy the surroundings.

Ernie Francisco talked about living most of her life along Johnson Creek in Southeast Portland. The creek, one of the biggest urban streams in Oregon, once was home to thousands of steelhead and salmon.

"Over 50 years we watched the deterioration of the stream," Francisco said, attributing the problem to nonstop development along its banks.

Toward the end of the three-hour program, Silvia Vazquez-Rios talked about her childhood in Puerto Rico, which included swimming in a nearby stream, drinking its water and washing clothes along its banks. When she returned recently, the place where her father fished had been submerged by a new dam.

What, she questioned, does that have to do with the Columbia watershed?

"God gave us a perfect place, and we're the ones who are supposed to keep it safe for the next generation," Vazquez-Rios said. "Are we doing our job?"

Copies of the pastoral letter as well as details about the March 3 event are available at Or call the Archdiocese of Portland's Office of Justice and Peace at 503-233-8361.

Harry Esteve
River Stories Illustrate Bishops' Charge to Care for the Columbia
The Oregonian, March 4, 2001

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