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Eastern Washington Legislative Conference 2015: Raising Prophetic voices

Panel examines Columbia River Treaty renegotiation

Four speakers in a workshop at the Eastern Washington Legislative Conference reviewed different aspects of advocacy related to the upcoming renewal of the Columbia River Treaty .

Columbia River Treaty Panel - John Osborn, Martin Wells, Matt Wynne
Matt Wynne, Bishop Martin Wells and John Osborn
Click on this link to watch the 3 videos of this workshop session on The Fig Tree Youtube Channel

Using the 2001 Catholic bishops’ Pastoral Letter on the Columbia River Watershed to frame their remarks, they spoke on “Rivers of Our Moment,” “Rivers Through Our Memory,” “Rivers of Our Vision” and “Rivers as Our Responsibility.”

Bishop William Skylstad said the region’s 12 bishops in 2001 sought to address environment related to the Columbia River. He noted that Pope Francis I’s next encyclical will be on environment and how concern about it is a “challenge to our world and cultures.”

The retired bishop spoke of the expanse of the Columbia River watershed partly in Canada, flowing through Washington and the Columbia Gorge to the Pacific.  Its complexity includes salmon, irrigation, recreation and wildlife, as well as cultures, he said.

Growing up in the Methow Valley, 15 miles above the river, he remembers seeing salmon runs in the river, so he was eager to serve on the committee that prepared the letter as an expression of hope that both integrates social and ecological concerns, and promotes justice and stewardship.

“It was a highly consultative process with public forums, reading assignments, listening sessions and ecumenical input,” he said.  “There was much pressure about what we would say.

“In the pastoral letter, our focus is care of creation, creation of community, care of our common home and commitment to creation and the common good,” Bishop Skylstad said.

Matt Wynne, a member of the Spokane Tribe of Indians, secretary elect of the Spokane Tribal Business Council and chair of The Upper Columbia United Tribes (UCUT), shared memories of his grandmother taking him at the age of seven to Oregon City.  They climbed down rock cliffs by the falls.  She reached into the wall of water, pulled out lamprey eels and put them in burlap bags.

“How did you know they were there,” he asked, amazed.  She told him of the time when the fish were plentiful from Little Falls to Kettle Falls.

“That inspired me to bring back what is lost, so the Spokane Tribe can pass on lessons to our children.  It has been 75 years since salmon reached the upper reaches of the Columbia River.  We need to teach our children that we are salmon people,” Matt said.  “I hope the Higher Power will keep us strong to bring back the salmon.”

Fifteen tribes have formed the Columbia River Coalition to work together as the Columbia River Treaty is renegotiated.

“The river is our life,” he said.  “Originally, the only considerations of the Columbia River Treaty were to build dams for flood control and hydropower generation.  Now we need also to consider the damage through the ecosystem.”

Matt is hopeful that changes can be made.

Physician and conservationist John Osborn called for considering the vision of the river.

“Looking back 200 years ago, Lewis and Clark stepped into the Columbia River watershed in 1805.  Over 200 years, there have been profound changes to the river, partly as a result of dam building,” he said.

In 1964, the United States and Canada ratified the Columbia River Treaty, which set in motion construction of four dams—one in Montana and three “treaty dams” in British Columbia.  The Arrow Lakes Dam forced 2,300 people from their homes, farms and businesses.  In negotiating the treaty, neither Canada nor the U.S. consulted with tribes or local communities.

Since the Columbia River Treaty Conference last May at Gonzaga University, 21 religious and indigenous leaders representing nearly all tribes and First Nations in the Columbia Basin sent a letter to Canadian Prime Minister Harper and U.S. President Obama requesting that the treaty be modernized based on principles of justice and stewardship, John said.

Bishop Martin Wells said the Eastern Washington Idaho Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that he serves covers the same territory as the Columbia River watershed.  He feels a call to share his sense of responsibility among his constituents and ecumenical partners.

He told of the power of stories and his own experience of seeing the Kenai River in Alaska teeming with salmon.

“Stewardship is the language we use in the Christian community to talk of our responsibility for creation,” he said.  “Scriptures have stories of water and of stewardship for a gift that has been given to us.

“The gift of water has been entrusted to us.  We are to treat water as a treasure that is basic to life itself.  Our bodies are 80 percent water.  We are walking columns of water,” Martin said.

He has signed the Pastoral Letter on the Columbia River Watershed and joined other Northwest religious leaders in signing a letter of apology to the region’s tribes for the way settlers decimated tribal lands.  He and other religious leaders also signed a document expressing opposition to coal transport and export, especially at Cherry Point, a sacred area for Lummi Indians.

With the renegotiation of the Columbia River Treaty, he believes it’s possible to consider more than flood control and power production.

Another tool, he said is the Public Trust Doctrine, which says natural resources belong to the public, so public rights take precedence over private rights.

“As Christians, we share aesthetic and sacred values of the rivers as the tribes’ land.  We have a sacred trust to be stewards,” Martin said.  “The Catholic letter gives a beginning place for dealing with the public trust and the need not to allow political influences to privatize the river.”

Since the Gonzaga conference, UCUT has taken a lead on the effort to restore salmon, said John.

“Your opinion matters,” Matt added, inviting people to go to the UCUT website and comment.  “We hope to keep our voices heard with the U.S. State Department, which is not letting us in to the renegotiation process yet.”

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