Crafting an Ethic of Place: The Columbia River Pastoral Letter Project


1. Conflict

[1] Throughout its history, conflict and contentiousness have characterized efforts to make public policy in the American West.  Ours is a "legacy of conquest" as Patricia Nelson Limerick writes, in which Westerners with diverse interests and backgrounds engage in an "ongoing competition for legitimacy - for the right to claim for oneself and sometimes for one's group the status of legitimate beneficiary of Western resources.1

[2] In this context of ongoing acrimony over land, water, and resources, Charles Wilkinson has called on Westerners to develop an "ethic of place." 

[An ethic of place] is premised on a sense of place, the recognition that our species thrives on the subtle, intangible, but soul-deep mix of landscape, smells, sounds, history, schools, storefronts, neighbors, and friends that constitute a place, a homeland.  An ethic of place respects equally the people of a region and the land, animals, vegetation, water, and air.  It recognizes that Westerners revere their physical surroundings and that they need and deserve a stable, productive economy that is accessible to those with modest incomes.  An ethic of place ought to be a shared community value and ought to manifest itself in a dogged determination to treat the environment and its people as equals, to recognize both as sacred, and to insure that all members of the community not just search for but insist upon solutions that fulfill the ethic.2

[3] Ironically in this most unchurched region in the nation,3 a leading effort at crafting an ethic of place is being undertaken by the Catholic bishops of the Pacific Northwest.  The Columbia River Pastoral Letter Project is an attempt by the bishops of seven Catholic dioceses in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and British Columbia - the watershed of the Columbia River - to integrate Catholic faith and social teaching regarding ecological and economic responsibility in a specific geographic and cultural context.  It offers a model of theological and ethical reflection in the post-Christendom era that addresses not only those within the household of faith, but invites "all people of good will to work together to develop and implement an integrated spiritual, social, and ecological vision of our watershed home, a vision that promotes justice for people and stewardship of creation."4   The project's promise lies in its commitment to an ongoing process involving context, conversation, and a refreshingly undogmatic approach to confessional theology.

2. Context

The most striking aspect of the Pastoral Letter Project is that it takes its context seriously.  In the West, watersheds are frequently more relevant to thinking about a geographic region than are political boundaries.  Wilkinson notes that "the most relevant boundary lines for an ethic of place in the American West accrue from basin and watershed demarcations.  The region is marked off by water, or more accurately by the lackof it.5"   The sense of a place dependent upon and shaped by the Columbia River characterizes every aspect of the letter, from its title to its style of theological reflection.

[4] The "Great River of the West" has deep social and cultural significance for the Northwest.  Together with its major tributary, the Snake, the Columbia drains a watershed of 259,000 square miles that includes parts of six western states and British Columbia.  The river is also the major engine for the region's economy, providing relatively low cost hydro-power and irrigation, as well as serving as a major transportation route between the inland Northwest and the global marketplace. 

[5] The Columbia is also home to a number of species of Pacific salmon which provide an excellent example of the challenges and difficult choices facing the region's citizens regarding the river's future.  In addition to their economic and spiritual significance, salmon are the regional icon and the key to many Northwesterners' sense of identity and self-understanding.  "The Pacific Northwest is simply this:" writes journalist Timothy Egan, "wherever the salmon can get to.  Rivers without salmon have lost the life source of the area.6"    

[6] Unfortunately, in large portions of the watershed, the life source has been lost forever.  Once the most prolific salmon-producing river in the world (historic annual runs were as large as 16 million fish by some estimates), the Columbia has seen many of its salmon runs become extinct. Across the region, fourteen stocks of Pacific Salmon are listed as "threatened" or "endangered" under the Endangered Species Act.  Most of the runs that sustained a thriving tribal economy for centuries at places like Celilo Falls now exist only in grainy black and white historical photographs or in the memories of the region's oldest residents.

[7] The salmon's demise has been brought on by a variety of factors associated with the economic development and harnessing of the river's power to serve a growing population.  Analysts refer to them as "the four H's, a short-hand acronym for harvest, hydro, habitat, and hatcheries.  Over-harvest of the fish dates from the rise of commercial fishing in the late 19th century.  Salmon were further decimated by the development of the Columbia for hydropower which began with the New Deal and the commissioning of Bonneville Dam in 1938.  The loss of spawning and rearing habitat resulted from increasing urbanization and the relentless exploitation of the region's abundant natural resources beginning in the late 19th century.  The often indiscriminate reliance on fish hatcheries to mitigate these losses has further exacerbated the plight of the salmon.

[8] But over and above the specific reasons for their demise - all of which are fiercely debated by various "stakeholders" - the salmon are caught between two conflicting visions of the river's future.  One vision includes drastic measures to restore endangered salmon by returning the river to a more natural state.  The vision includes the removal of four major dams along the lower Snake River in order to provide more fish-friendly spawning habitat.  Advocates for dam removal include the region's most economically disadvantaged citizens, the four American Indian tribes that make up the Columbia River Inter-tribal Fish Commission.  For tribal people, salmon are not only important economically, they are at the very heart of their spiritual understanding of the world.  During treaty negotiations in the mid-19th century, the tribes reserved their rights to catch up to half of the river's available salmon in exchange for ceding their lands to the United States government.  These reserved treaty rights have been tenaciously defended and upheld by the Supreme Court in a long series of court battles throughout the 20th Century culminating in the famous "Boldt" decision (U.S. v. Washington).  That decision, named for the federal judge who rendered it, spelled out the full extent of the tribes' treaty fishing rights and plays a role equivalent to Brown v. Board of Education for the people of the Pacific Northwest.   

[9] A second vision was brought by the region's European settlers and perhaps best summed up in Woody Guthrie's famous ode to Grand Coulee Dam:

Uncle Sam said, "Roll along Columbia, you can ramble to the sea,
but river while you're rambling, you can do some work for me.7

[10] Twenty-nine federal dams on the Columbia and the Snake and a host of others throughout the watershed have transformed the river where Lewis and Clark first encountered salmon in numbers "incredible to say."  Today's Columbia is less a rambling river than a series of slack-water pools that provide irrigation for the high-desert orchards and wheat farms of the Columbia plateau; a barge transportation system that has made Lewiston, Idaho - 450 miles from the Pacific ocean - into a major inland port; and most important of all, an efficient generator of relatively clean and inexpensive hydro-electric power that fuels the region's troubled economy.

[11] Biologist Jim Lichatowich refers to these competing visions as the "natural economy" and the "industrial economy" and the salmon are only the most visible victims of the conflict.8   Like Solomon searching for wisdom as he determines the fate of the baby, the region's difficulty in finding a way through these alternative visions forms the context from which the pastoral letter emerges and which, in turn, it seeks to address.  Historian Richard White observes,

[12] The Columbia runs through the heart of the Northwest in ways we never imagined.  It flows along the borders of the numerous divisions in our fractured society.  To come to terms with the Columbia, we need to come to terms with it as a whole, as an organic machine, not only as a reflection or our own social divisions but as the site in which these divisions play out.9

3. Conversation

[13] While the pastoral letter released by the bishops in February of 2001 (available for download at is the most visible "product" of the project, one could argue that the real product is the process itself.  As Robert J. Castagna of the project steering committee noted in a 1998 speech,

Just as important as the issue to be addressed is the process the project is engaged in: the bishops want to be in dialogue with all people of good will regarding one of God's great gifts to this region: the Columbia River. The project steering committee has voiced repeatedly "its support for justice, respect for all involved and a genuine attempt to listen, to learn, and to dialogue.10"

 [15] Writer Jim Robbins notes that the Project's roots lie in Pope John Paul's 1990 World Day of Peace message, "The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility."  In a follow-up document from the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops entitled Renewing the Earth, the bishops contend that the "fundamental relation between humanity and nature is one of caring for creation."  A group of Catholics from the West and Northwest were encouraged by the Pope's message and the bishops' statement.  But those were generalities, writes Robbins.  "They wanted a statement that was anchored in a place.  Nothing stood out like the Columbia.11" In the spring of 1995, they asked Bishop William Skylstad of the Spokane Diocese, who had grown up on the river, to head a steering committee made up of the bishops, priests, and lay representatives from the seven Northwest dioceses that make up the Columbia River watershed.  They also invited participation from representatives of the region's Catholic colleges and universities.

[16] From November of 1997 through March of 1999, the steering committee began a series of eight listening sessions throughout the Pacific Northwest.12   Steering committee member Sr. Cecilia Ranger recalled these sessions as a genuine effort to hear from representatives of all the various interest groups in the watershed, e.g., commercial fishermen, environmentalists, representatives of state and federal agencies, members of the barging industry, farmers, irrigators, grain elevator operators, the hydro power industry, treaty tribes, and anglers.  It was a comprehensive list of both "experts" and citizens of the region who were invited to address the steering committee from their own perspective.  After this phase of the process, a first draft13  was circulated by the steering committee to these "consultants" for their response and critique.  Their feedback was taken into consideration as the final draft was prepared.14

[17] Throughout the project the goal was to promote conversation in a variety of venues among diverse participants.  Drafts of the letter were discussed widely by both religious and secular groups as well as in the media.15   For example in November of 1999, the Oregon Council for the Humanities and the Center for Columbia River History, both secular organizations, sponsored a forum entitled "Is the Columbia River a Sacred Place?" based on the first draft of the letter.

[18] Because the letter was addressed not only to Catholics but also to a wider audience, the tone is irenic.  As Sr. Ranger observed, "The goal is to promote conversation rather than to take a hard and fast confessional stand and the language reflects this." 

[19] But there were times when the project's goal of promoting conversation was in tension with its confessional and theological possibilities.  For example, the first draft referred to the watershed as a "sacramental commons.16"   The phrase recalls the material means - bread, wine, water - whereby humankind experiences God's grace; "a visible sign of an inward grace" in Catholic theological parlance or in Luther's phrase, "the finite as the bearer of the infinite."  Professor John Hart of Carroll College, who authored much of the letter, calls it "a moment of encounter with God.17"   It hints of a movement by the bishops from thinking of the Columbia and, by extension, the created world, strictly in terms of stewardship and the first article of the creed into the realm of redemption in the second article, what theologian Joseph Sittler recognized as a manifestation of grace.18 

[20] But in addition to its theological meaning, the phrase recalls ethicist Garrett Hardin's famous ecological parable of the "tragedy of the commons."  It refers to the medieval village commons which was used not only as a place to graze animals but as a meeting place to discuss village business.  "The sacramental commons idea really goes to the heart of what the pastoral letter was trying to convey about the Columbia," according to Sr. Cecilia Ranger, "a place where we encounter God's grace as well as one another."  Nevertheless, the "sacramental commons" does not appear in the final draft of the letter. 

[21] Sr. Ranger speculates that there are at least two reasons for this.  The bishops didn't want to offend Catholics who think of the sacraments in a narrower, ecclesiastical way.  As Frank Fromherz of the steering committee observed, "To say the river is a sacramental commons means people can experience the Creator in creation, outside formal church settings.19"   The bishops also wanted to avoid giving offense to non-Catholics and non-Christians who might misinterpret the phrase to mean that the church was somehow claiming control of the river.20

4. Confession

[22] Rather than a heavy handed dogmatic statement, the pastoral letter is an invitation to dialog with people from very different backgrounds and perspectives.  It is laced with a healthy sense of humility while at the same time genuine in its effort to express the bishops' underlying Biblical and theological convictions. 

[24] After a helpful introduction that describes the project's history and aims, the letter is divided into four major sections reflecting past and present realities and possible futures for the watershed and its people.  It weaves contextual, biblical, and theological reflections on the river into a tapestry that includes spiritual, social, and economic visions for the future as well as a call to individual and corporate ethical responsibility.

[25] Part I, entitled "The Rivers of Our Moment," examines the current situation on the Columbia and contrasts "pristine beauty, where the hand of God is hardly touched by human intervention" and "ordered beauty, where people have worked well with the land and water in their care" with "areas of blight, where people have disregarded their responsibilities to their Creator, their community and their environment.21"   The bishops see signs of hope amid the problems, particularly in a new consciousness regarding the impact of past abuses and increased respect for all who share "our common home."

[26] Part II, "The Rivers through Our Memory," shows remarkable respect for American Indian spiritual beliefs and tribal understandings of the river that is consistent throughout the document.  It includes a concise summary of biblical understandings of the meaning of water from the watery chaos and flood of Genesis to the heavenly river of Ezekiel 47 and Revelation 22.  There is also an extended reflection on Jesus' use of "living water" in the Gospel of John. The "ghost" of the "sacramental commons" lives on in one memorable passage:

[27] As the whole universe can be a source of blessing or revelation of God, so also the commons of a local place can be revelatory.  In a setting such as the Columbia River Watershed, the signs of God's creativity and presence are abundant … Signs of God's presence are evident in all of creation. When we are open to the Spirit of God we may experience the loving presence of God among us.22

[28] In Part III, "The Rivers of Our Vision," the bishops envision "a place where all people are treated justly and authentic stewardship is the norm."  They also express their hope of "working people engaged in productive employment at living wages, and communities integrated with their environment."  Finally, they see "the Columbia Watershed community inhabiting an environment of clean land, clear water, and pure air.23

[29] Undergirding these spiritual, social, and ecological hopes are seven core theological convictions:

  • 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. 

  • God intends the earth's goods to be equitably shared.24

[30] Part IV, "The Rivers of Our Responsibility," is a call to action by the citizens of the region to begin making the ideals and visions expressed earlier in the document a reality.  It includes 9 "Considerations for Community Caretaking."  Among these is the embrace of religious pluralism mentioned earlier.  Reflecting a position first expressed in November of 1987 in a "formal apology" by the leaders of nine Northwest denominations (including Catholic) for past "participation in the destruction of Native American spiritual practices,25"  the letter recognizes that "indigenous peoples have a wealth of spirituality, culture and traditions that call forth a need for appropriate respect and preservation.26"   The bishops also call for the promotion of justice for the poor in linking economic justice with environmental justice as well as the promotion of community resolution of economic and ecological issues.

[31] The bishops conclude by asking people to exhibit courage, conviction, perseverance, and vision in imagining the watershed ten, fifty, or one hundred years from now and working conscientiously to make that image a reality.   Appropriately, it is dated January 8, 2001, the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.

5. Critique

[32] Unlike most church pronouncements (e.g., the ELCA's 1993 Social Statement Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope, and Justice27 ), the hard copy edition of the Pastoral Letter is attractive, readable, and accessible.  It contains a map, pictures, a history of the project, and suggestions for further reading.  It is well written and uses a minimal amount of theological and churchly jargon.  Fittingly, it concludes with a poetic reflection.  There is also a video tape summary and a four-session reflection and discussion guide for use by those who wish to study and discuss the letter. The web version is available in English, French, and Spanish.  This is not only a refreshing approach, it is absolutely vital for a statement that is intended to address people both inside and outside the church. 

[33] Several other positive aspects include the Project's:

  • Connection to its contemporary and historical context.

  • Commitment to an ongoing process of conversation and critique with a variety of dialog partners reflecting diverse viewpoints and perspectives.

  • Embrace of religious, cultural, and social pluralism.

  • Commitment to justice for the poor and its refusal to separate economic and environmental justice.

  • Address to "all people of goodwill" rather than simply those within the household of faith.

  • Accessibility in both language and format.

  • Integration, however faint, of "nature" and "grace" in the letter's Biblical and theological reflections

[34] None of these efforts is beyond criticism of course, but the document reflects a healthy sense of humility as well as a commitment to theological and ethical reflection on environmental and economic issues that takes seriously the problem of the world, the Biblical and theological tradition, and the Church's minority position in the post-modern, post-Constantinian world.

[35] Predictably, the letter has been criticized by some for not being specific or going far enough in its call to action.  For example the bishops don't take a position on the possible breaching of the four lower Snake River dams.  Somewhat predictably, given the Catholic Church's stance on artificial birth control, the letter has also been criticized for not dealing with the problem of over-population.  Responding to some of this criticism, Frank Fromherz counters, "It's not a giant anvil dropped in your garden with a thud.  It's an invitation to think more deeply.28"

[36] Paradoxically, perhaps the Project's greatest promise lies in one of its more controversial aspects, i.e., its style of theological reflection.  Rather than being dogmatic, its tone is reflective while at the same time attempting to be faithful to the Church's Biblical and theological understandings.  This is particularly true in the statement of underlying convictions in Part III of the letter.  Responding to the difficulty that some more traditional Catholics have with it, John Hart, who wrote much of the document, said, "It's more difficult for some than others, more difficult for people oriented toward what the church has said in the past.  It's easier for people who look at the social context and apply tradition, rather than people who take tradition and apply it to social context.29"   Cecilia Ranger's response was emphatic.  "That's the preacher's job!  To make faith real in people's context! That's what we tried to do with the letter.30"   At the very least, it represents a genuine contribution on the part of Catholics in the Pacific Northwest toward crafting an ethic of place.

End Notes

1  Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: the Unbroken Past of the American West, W.W. Norton, 1987, p.27.

2  Charles F. Wilkinson, The Eagle Bird: Mapping a New West, Vintage Books, 1992, p.137-38.

3  Shelby Oppel, "The separation between church and Oregon," The Oregonian, September 18, 2002.

4  Shelby Oppel, "The separation between church and Oregon," The Oregonian, September 18, 2002.

5  Wilkinson, The Eagle Bird, p.139.

6  Timothy Egan, The Good Rain: Across Time and Terrain in the Pacific Northwest, Knopf, 1990, p. 22.

7  Woody Guthrie, "The Grand Coulee Dam," Woody Guthrie Songbook, The Richmond Organization, 1999, p.23.

8  Jim Lichatowich, Salmon without Rivers: A History of the Pacific Salmon Crisis, Island Press, 1999.

9  Richard White, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River, Hill and Wang, 1995, p.113.


11  Jim Robbins, "On the path to a greener church," High Country News, September 11, 2000.

12  Appendix C, The Columbia River Watershed, p. 22.

13  Columbia River Pastoral Letter Project, The Columbia River Watershed: Realities and Possibilities - a Reflection in Preparation for a Pastoral Letter, 1999.

14  Sr. Cecilia Ranger, SNJM, personal interview with the author, August 15, 2003.

15  Cf., Mark O'Keefe, "On God's greener earth: Regional Roman Catholic bishops' new stance on caring for the Columbia River is a sign of significant shift in Christianity toward emphasizing environmentalism, The Sunday Oregonian, Ma6 16, 1999.

16  The Columbia River Watershed: Realities and Possibilities (1999), p. 24, 25.

17  High Country News, September 11, 2000, p. 10.

18  Peter W. Bakken, "Nature as a Theater of Grace: The Ecological Theology of Joseph Sittler," in Joseph Sittler, Evocations of Grace: Writings on Ecology, Theology, and Ethics, edited by Steven Bouma-Prediger and Peter Bakken, Eerdmans, 2000, p. 18.

19  Jim Robbins, "Holy Water: The Catholic Church seeks to restore the Columbia River and the church's relevance to the natural world," High Country News, September 11, 2000.

20  Sr. Cecilia Ranger, August 15, 2003.

21  The Columbia River Watershed (2001) p. 3.

22  The Columbia River Watershed (2001), p. 8.

23  The Columbia River Watershed (2001), p. 11.

24  The Columbia River Watershed (2001), p. 12.

25  A Public Declaration to the Tribal Councils and Traditional Spiritual Leaders of the Indian and Eskimo Peoples, November 21, 1987, in Jacqueline Peterson, Sacred Encounters: Father De Smet and the Indians of the Rocky Mountain West, University of Oklahoma Press, 1993, p. 170.

26  The Columbia River Watershed (2001), p. 14.


28  High Country News, September 11, 2000, p. 10.

29  High Country News, September 11, 2000, p. 12.

30  Sr. Cecilia Ranger, SNJM, August 15, 2003.


© October 2003
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 3, Issue 10