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Dealing with past mistakes and today’s misgivings


I don’t think anyone is naive in terms of the complexity of the Columbia River,” Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., said in an interview in Portland. “It’s a daunting challenge.”

Skylstad, who grew up in Washington state near one of the Columbia’s tributaries, heads the steering committee for the U.S. and Canadian bishops’ pastoral letter on the Columbia River.

The environmental challenges are especially tough because the Columbia is an international river, flowing across the Canadian border, and because many of the decisions that affect the watershed’s welfare today “were made years ago,” he said.

The pastoral letter, in its first draft or “reflection stage,” and scheduled for completion next year, is a careful attempt to weigh all sides of the issues and “to introduce principles into the discussion,” Skylstad said.

“We are not into a blaming mode in the pastoral letter,” he said. “Everyone recognizes the mistakes of the past.” Still, he said, “there is an edge to the letter and real fear and concern” on the part of some people “that we’ll come out with something that will harm their enterprises. Some people have said they wish we wouldn’t write this letter.” Others, though, have encouraged the bishops to keep raising the issues, he said.

The issues include the loss of old-growth evergreens to clear-cutting, the decline of the salmon population and disappearance of some species, violation of Native American treaty rights that promise access to the river and its resources, the high price of cleaning up nuclear and industrial waste that pollutes the rivers and land, and controversies raging in the region about how the problems are best resolved. The logging industry and commercial fisheries are important sources of employment. If dams along the river are breached to make the environment more friendly to salmon, water for irrigation and power will be reduced and barge transportation impeded.

The Hanford Reserve in Washington, building site for atomic, nuclear and chemical weapons since World War II, is widely regarded as the most polluted site in the nation. Skylstad said cleanup costs there are estimated at $50 billion to $60 billion.

Despite the many areas of pristine and cultivated beauty in the region, the bishops decry behavior that has resulted in “ravaged riverbanks, decimated forests, ... chemical and nuclear wastes oozing toward the river.” Further, they say, “In Canada, extremes in river levels that prevent the existence of both natural ecologies and human enterprises are caused by dams built primarily to meet U.S. energy needs.”

The letter also decries consolidation of resources “into fewer and fewer hands” and injustices toward indigenous peoples of Canada and the United States who “continue to suffer from racism and violation of treaty rights.”

Using the biblical theme of Jubilee Year 2000 -- so proclaimed by Pope John Paul II as in keeping with the biblical mandate in Leviticus 25 that calls for periodic redistribution of resources -- and describing the earth as a “sacramental commons,” the letter insists that “respect for life needs to include all creation.”

“This commons is not for humans alone,” the bishops write. “It is intended by God to provide for all of God’s creatures as they live in ecological relation.” If the right ethical vision is realized, “people will recognize the inherent value of creation and the dignity of all living beings as creatures of God,” according to the bishops.

“While we, as other species, depend on the sacrifice of life by other creatures to meet our needs, we should not take these sacrifices lightly nor take advantage of them more than is necessary,” the letter says. “We should be grateful for what other lives provide for our lives and be respectful toward them and toward the Earth that is our common home.”

Specific proposals include taking measures to save salmon, providing financial support for family farms, developing and adopting new energy sources to reduce reliance on water and dams, ensuring justice for the region’s poor, promoting responsible forestry practices, and combining conservation practices with restoration programs that provide new jobs.

“We hope we can encourage a civil, collaborative dialogue” and “help people to reflect in a spiritual way on the problems of the river and to exert good stewardship,” Skylstad said.

“We are at a stage in the Northwest where we are not over the line, where in many cases environmental renewal is possible.”

National Catholic Reporter, June 4, 1999