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
 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
 Ironically in this most unchurched region in the
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
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
 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.
 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"
 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
 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.
 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.
 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
 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.
 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
 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  While the pastoral letter
released by the bishops in February of 2001 (available for download
at www.columbiariver.org) 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"
 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.
 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
 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.
 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
 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
 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.
 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  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.
 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.
 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."
 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:
 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
 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
 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
 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
 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  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.
 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
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
 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.
 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
 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
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,
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.