In the spring of 2000 following several years of research, public discussion and reflection, Roman Catholic bishops of the Pacific Northwest issued a pastoral letter on the Columbia River Basin. Entitled The Columbia River Watershed: Caring for Creation and the Common Good (external link), the letter explored stewardship teachings in the Bible and of the Catholic Church, including respect for nature. According to the letter, “these themes are consistent with a Christian belief that the earth is a creation of God intended to serve the needs of all creation.”

The 12 bishops who signed the letter represented dioceses from Portland, Oregon, to Nelson, British Columbia, and from Baker City, Oregon, to Helena, Montana. Pastoral letters guide teaching in Catholic schools and provide instruction to churches about issues confronting modern society. The pastoral letter on the Columbia River watershed came about:

. . .because we have become concerned about regional economic and ecological conditions and the conflicts over them in the watershed,” the bishops wrote, adding: “We address this letter to our Catholic community and to all people of good will. We hope that we might work together to develop and implement an integrated spiritual, social and ecological vision for our watershed home, a vision that promotes justice for people and stewardship of creation.

In the letter, the bishops commented on a number of natural resource issues and societal concerns, ranging from the impacts of agriculture and mining to transportation, energy, and forestry. They also addressed the plight of salmon: “The endangerment and possible extinction of the area’s animal and fish species are of notable concern in our day. The specific causes of, and remedies for, salmon endangerment and extinction are hotly debated in the region.” But, the bishops noted:

We see signs of hope in the scientific studies of agricultural, fishing, transportation and energy needs. Renewed hope is evident in a new consciousness among government officials and business entrepreneurs about the impact of past abuses of the rivers’ environment and their expressed intentions to avoid similar abuses in the future.

The bishops commented that unregulated fishing and cannery industries seriously depleted salmon supplies and that “River People were forced to live a modified way of life on severely diminished lands, with less abundant salmon runs.” Dams and ocean fishing, and shifts in ocean conditions, also impacted salmon, as did the completion of The Dalles Dam in 1957, which flooded the historic Indian fishery at Celilo Falls.

The presence and health of salmon and other species of fish in the Columbia-Snake system is a sign of the health of the entire region, the bishops said. And they took up the issue of breaching the four federal dams on the lower Snake River:

Some urge breaching the dams . . . in order to improve the water environment for fish. Others advocate keeping the dams for energy and agricultural uses, and suggest other means of assuring the survival of fish and fish-related industries. The solution is very complex, and unilateral answers appear to be inadequate. Those involved in the debate and decisions must consider scientific studies, community needs and ecological impacts in making decisions which are ultimately political but which must stem from a spiritual and ethical base. We urge that serious discussions and serious scientific research continue in order to assure the presence of a habitat suitable for the native fish of the region. Those discussions must always maintain a proper respect for God’s creatures and a prudent consideration of the common good for the people of the area.

In their conclusion, the bishops wrote: “We hope and pray that the issuance of this letter will be beneficial for the Columbia Watershed. We hope and pray that it will contribute to a deeper respect for the dignity of the human person. We hope that it will be a source of encouragement to people who care deeply about God’s creation.”