One River – Ethics Matter: Western Montana

5th annual international ethics conference on the past and future of the Columbia River

Advancing justice & stewardship in the Columbia River Basin through Treaty renewal and negotiations
April 11, 2018  –  University of Montana, Missoula


“Every day I fished the Kootenai River. When they came to celebrate completing the dam I didn’t go. I cried all day. When they built the dam, they took away the river. That was when I died.”

– Maria Fraser  |  Libby, Montana

Prime Minister Trudeau, President Trump. The Trudeau and Trump Administrations continue to move toward negotiations to modernize the Columbia River Treaty.

Kootenai River, Libby dam, “Lake” KooCanUSA. One of four “Treaty dams” in the Upper Columbia, Libby dam brought benefits but also adverse impacts for the Kootenai River and Kootenay Lake. Using “Montana Operations” and “VarQ“, change is coming to dam management to advance stewardship.  (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo)

Planning Committee

Advisory Committee

For 150 years Canada and the United States have enjoyed a close relationship between nations. As the Trudeau and Trump administrations prepare to negotiate and modernize the Columbia River Treaty it is particularly important to call on both nations to account for and remedy the devastating consequences of the dam-building era on the Columbia River.

From Time Immemorial

[Click on map to enlarge] Columbia River, tribes, First Nations. There has never been a basin-wide accounting nor remedy for the wrenching impacts of the dam-building era on the Columbia River and people of the river. (map courtesy of Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission)

“It’s important for residents of the region to understand the history of what happened, so that we can have an informed voice in upcoming government discussions.”

– Eileen Delehanty Pearkes
author of A River Captured: The Columbia River Treaty and Catastrophic Change

Near Missoula, over 200 years ago, the Lewis & Clark expedition walked up to Lolo Pass with guidance and support of Native American tribes. Earlier, on August 12 1805, at Lemhi Pass, the American explorers sent by President Jefferson had stepped out of the United States and into a river of life we now call the “Columbia River.”

Here was a place where tens of millions of wild salmon returned each year to spawn in forest and desert streams renewing a great cycle of life, a river where people’s existence and culture from time immemorial depended on these returning salmon.

At the time of first contact between indigenous people and Lewis & Clark, and then later British explorer David Thompson, the Columbia River was perhaps the richest salmon river on earth.

What happened?

In two centuries – the blink of an eye – the forces of Manifest Destiny brought catastrophic change. Dams, while bringing benefits for many, also carried devastating consequences for the river, life that depends on the river, and river people.   Without consulting tribes and First Nations, the federal governments of the U.S. and Canada along with the Provincial B.C. government negotiated the Columbia River Treaty and ratified it in 1964.

Not surprisingly for an international river treaty negotiated during the 1950s (and without including indigenous people in treaty decisions) the Columbia River Treaty has only two purposes: generating hydropower and flood risk management.

Given this history and unfolding climate change, tribes, First Nations, faith leaders, and NGOs are advocating that Ecosystem Function – river stewardship – be added to the Treaty as a third treaty purpose equal to hydropower and flood risk management.

Ecosystem Function includes passage for fish blocked by dams, reconnecting rivers to their floodplains, and stabilizing reservoir levels. Also central to the future of the Columbia River: who decides river management? To right historic wrongs also requires that Canada and the United States expand river governance to include tribes and First Nations in multinational river governance.

One River – Ethics Matter

“We invite people to explore with us the implications of the . . . idea of human stewardship of creation, and to effect a spiritual, social, and ecological transformation of the watershed.”

The Columbia River Watershed: Caring for Creation and the Common Good.
Roman Catholic Bishops of the international watershed, 2001

The “One River, Ethics Matter” conference series focuses on the dam-building era’s impacts on the Columbia River, modeled on South Africa’s “Truth & Reconciliation Process” in response to another great injustice, apartheid.

These water-ethics conferences have two foundations: (1) the Columbia River Pastoral Letter by the Roman Catholic Bishops of the international watershed, and (2) tools used by hospital ethics committees. These conferences are interdisciplinary. They bring together tribal elders, historians, scientists, ethicists, faith leaders, and others to understand rivers through our history and as our responsibility.

Join us in Missoula on April 11

The Missoula conference on April 11, 2018, will focus on the consequences of the dam-building era in western Montana, including:

  • Libby dam and international impacts to the Kootenai River and Kootenai Lake;
  • Hungry Horse dam, and efforts to protect resident fisheries; and
  • The Séliš Ksanka Qlispé Project on the Flathead River, a federal license now held by the Confederate Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the first in the nation to own and operate a major hydropower facility.

The ethics conference will include “Montana Operations” and “VarQ” as possible models for future management of the dam system throughout the Columbia Basin in order to advance the ethical principles of justice and stewardship.

The One River, Ethics Matter conference is free and open to the public. Lunch is provided to participants.


Hosted by

University of Montana Center for Natural Resources & Environmental Policy


Sponsored by

Columbia Institute for Water Policy  *  Center for Environmental Law & Policy  *  Rachael & John Osborn