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Saving the Soul of the Columbia

The Pacific Northwest's scenic river is the focus of a new ecological commitment by Catholic bishops, who have drafted a 'reflection' that emphasizes the sacred nature of the area.


SEATTLE — The Columbia River, whose fabled waters flow through 259,000 square miles of the Pacific Northwest, long has been a battleground for the powerful forces of agriculture, industry, hydropower and recreation who depend on it.

Now, in a sign of the Catholic Church's growing activism in the environmental arena, Roman Catholic bishops have issued a rare pastoral "reflection" that seeks to emphasize the sacred nature of the river--placing the church in the unusual role of echoing Native American spiritual discourse, and squarely in the middle of one of the region's most contentious political conflicts.

At a time when regional leaders face wrenching decisions about pulling down dams on Columbia tributaries and scaling back agricultural development along its banks, the communique this month from bishops in Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho and British Columbia reflects a growing determination by the church to inject issues of ethics, social justice and spiritual stewardship into what has historically been a debate about economics and the environment.

Although the church does not take a firm position on the contentious issue of pulling down hydropower dams, it does adopt a tone that is critical of economic exploitation of the river at the expense of the health of its waters, raising critical questions about mining, agricultural pesticide use, corporate farming and clear-cut logging. In a move likely to antagonize Republican congressmen and local farmers, the bishops advocate wild and scenic river status for the Columbia's last remaining untamed stretch through the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in central Washington.

As a first step, church leaders said they are prepared to back up their concerns about chemical and mining pollution by reducing the use of pesticides and fertilizers on church property and scaling back the use of gold ornamentation in church rituals.

Throughout the document, which is to be refined into a pastoral letter for the church's Jubilee Year 2000, the bishops advocate the rights of Native American tribes to harvest healthy fish runs from the river, and echo the Native Americans' traditional view of the river as a sacred, life-giving force.

"The Columbia River watershed is one of the most beautiful places on God's Earth. Its mountains and valleys, forests and meadows, rivers and deserts speak of the presence of their creator," the reflection begins, going on to describe local tribes' view of the river as Che Wana, the Great River, and drawing parallels between indigenous reverence for the river and the church's modern view of natural stewardship.

Bishops in the Midwest and Appalachia already have spoken out on environmental issues in the wake of Pope John Paul II's 1990 call for "common responsibility" on the part of the church toward the environment. But regional pastoral letters on the environment have been relatively rare, and an international effort like that on the Columbia, which includes church representatives from British Columbia as well, is unprecedented.

Church leaders meeting at a 1997 retreat in Portland, Ore., saw the Columbia River as an issue on which they could further an expanded environmental mission for the church, said Sister Sharon Park, executive director of the Washington State Catholic Conference and a member of the steering committee for the Columbia River Pastoral Letter Project.

"We looked around, and we said isn't it amazing that this massive river touches so much of our lives, and wouldn't it be wonderful to say something about that," Park said.

The bishops began a series of field visits and consultative meetings, during which they heard at length from all interests in the Columbia River debate, from hydropower operators to native tribes to the farmers, barge operators, loggers and aluminum smelter operators who make their livings on the banks of the river.

The "reflection" released on the project's Web site ( will be refined into an official pastoral letter next year after further public consultations. "We're trying to organize this so that the discussion is not coming purely from the economic interests of the different interest groups, but begins to reflect the ethical dimensions of this," said Steve Kolmes, environmental studies director at the University of Portland's only Catholic university.

At a time when vastly diverse interests are at loggerheads over the future of the Columbia and its dwindling runs of wild salmon, the entry of the Catholic Church into the debate has not been wholly welcome.

"We've debated this issue on scientific grounds, legal grounds, political grounds, economic grounds and now we're debating it on religious grounds, and quite honestly it makes my job that much harder," said Bruce Lovelin of the Columbia River Alliance, a lobbying group that represents commercial interests on the river, like the aluminum and barging industries.

"Personally, the kind of salvation I have is my own religion, and the ability to kind of divorce myself from salmon issues," said Lovelin, a Catholic. "Now, when I'm going to go to church, it's not leaving me, it's going to stick with me, and that's something I take a little umbrage at."

Nonetheless, Lovelin said he was relieved that the bishops have not yet come out in favor of dam removal and instead spoke of spiritual and environmental values "which frankly, a lot of us believe in in the Northwest."

But John Reid, Seattle-based project manager for the pastoral letter project, said it is possible that the bishops may move toward more controversial advocacy positions as they formulate the final wording of the letter over the next year.

"The intent is that the dialogue will continue well beyond the project," he said, "with the bishops hopefully having made a contribution to really enhancing civil and civic dialogue among groups that oftentimes don't listen too well to each other."

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