From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Northwest bishops of U.S., Canada release pastoral letter celebrating Columbia River watershed

by Jon Reddy, Catholic Sentinel, Portland, Ore.

(From the March 1, 2001 edition of the Inland Register)

A pastoral letter released this week by eight Catholic bishops of the Pacific Northwest and southeastern British Columbia calls for a spiritual dialogue on the future of the Columbia River watershed.

The watershed includes 1,200 miles of the river itself, as well as thousands of miles of its tributaries and 259,000 miles of extensive surrounding area.

Pastoral letters have been issued by Catholic Bishops on a variety of topics. The letter on the watershed is unique because it is the first combined regional/international letter.

The more than 12,000 word statement is titled “The Columbia River Watershed: Caring for the Common Good.”

The letter is the result of a four-year process that began in 1997 with the formation of an international steering committee. The project’s focus is grounded in Biblical reflection and the living tradition of Catholic social thought.

The committee represented Canadian and U.S. watershed dioceses and Catholic colleges and universities.

A series of gatherings, “Readings of the Signs of the Times,” was held in Washington, Oregon and British Columbia. At those meetings representatives from industry, agriculture, fishing, education and native peoples presented their perspectives on regional needs.

A draft of these perspectives was adapted by consultants: theologians, natural and social scientists, and church representatives.

A web site was set up, alerting the public to news and describing project activities and inviting comments from interested people.

An exploratory document, “The Columbia River Watershed: Realities and Possibilities,” was released for discussion in 1999.

As a result, hundreds of people from various walks of life have participated in the formation of this letter. Many ideas and perspectives were considered for inclusion, and have been reflected upon during the pastoral letter process in some way, say the bishops.

A poetic statement about the Columbia River, titled “Riversong,” also was written.

The letter, say the bishops, is being disseminated through the Columbia River Pastoral Letter Project to provide an international, watershed-wide, ongoing conversation process: to care for creation, to resolve regional conflicts with respect, compassion and good will, and to promote sustainable ecological relationships linked with community economic benefits.

In addition to Bishop Skylstad, the other 11 bishops who signed the pastoral letter are Archbishops Alex Brunett (Seattle) and John Vlazny (Portland); Bishops Eugene Cooney (Nelson, B.C.), Michael Driscoll (Boise, Idaho), Robert Morlino (Helena, Mont.), Carlos Sevilla SJ (Yakima, Wash.), and Robert Vasa (Baker, Ore.); Auxiliary Bishops Kenneth Steiner (Portland) and George Thomas (Seattle); retired Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen (Seattle); and retired Bishop Thomas Connolly (Baker).

The letter consists of a four-step reflection:

  • “The Rivers Of Our Moment,” analyzing the present situation of the watershed.
  • “The Rivers Through Our Memory,” reflecting on social and religious history.
  • “The Rivers Of Our Vision,” imagining an alternative future for the watershed.
  • “The Rivers As Our Responsibility,” calling for action to make the vision a new reality in the watershed.
In speaking of life on the Columbia River, past and present, the bishops say:

“We recognize the great contributions that our ancestors made to this region. 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.

“Our pastoral letter is not meant to criticize people’s efforts to provide a suitable living for their family. We are hopeful that those involved in industry are, by and large, also concerned about the environment.

“At the same time, we commend those who have recognized and responded to the environmental challenges that result from commercial and industrial enterprises. It is important for those with deeper concerns about the environment 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. Protection of the land is a common cause promoted more effectively through active cooperation than through contentious wrangling.”

The bishops also express in their letter seven convictions that underscore the need to care for the earth:

  • God is the Creator of the universe and maintains its existence through an ongoing creative will.
  • God’s presence is discernible in all creation.
  • God has blessed and called “very good” all that is created.
  • God loves the community of life.
  • God’s creatures share a common home.
  • God entrusts the earth to human care. People are stewards of God’s world.
  • God intends the earth’s goods to be equitably shared.
The 10 considerations for action in the pastoral letter’s final section challenge all people of good will to work together to effect a spiritual, social and ecological transformation of the watershed.

The project has already been honored as a “Sacred Gift for a Living Planet” by the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Alliance of Religions and Conservation. This award is one of 26 that was presented to groups around the world in Kathmandu, Nepal in November 2000.

The project has also been featured in articles in The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Oregonian and The Seattle Times as well as in Outside magazine and High Country News.

Important grant funding came from the Sisters of Providence, the Beldon Fund, and the Brainerd, Bullitt and Humanitas Foundations.

Educational aids, including a booklet with the letter, appendix and pictures, and a six-page reflection guide for use by parishes and other organizations, will be available for purchase after the pastoral letter has been released. A video will be released in the months to come.

Dialogues and teaching sessions on the letter are already being planned. The Archdioceses of Portland and Seattle will host one on March 3, at the University of Portland, while the Catholic Committee on Appalachia will sponsor another in Lexington, Ky., on March 23-24.

For more information, visit the web site.

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