On September 28, 2017, Rev. John Rosenberg spoke in Seattle at Healing the Columbia River. He joined author Eileen Delehanty Pearkes and leadership of the Upper Columbia United Tribes, D.R. Michel and John Sirois, in a special evening of story, reflection and discussion about the past and future of the Columbia River. Rev. Rosenberg’s comments are below.
Teacher, writer, volunteer – Rev. John Rosenberg is an advocate for healthy watersheds and the life they support. He serves as a volunteer in several salmon recovery efforts in South Puget Sound.
Healing the Columbia River
Tonight’s event is advertised as “an evening of story, discussion, and reflection.” In that spirit, I’d like to briefly describe my first encounter with the Columbia River and its salmon. It took place over 40 years ago in the summer of 1975 on an upper tributary of the Columbia—historic homeland of John Sirois and D.R. Michel. I was staying alone in a remote cabin for a month prior to beginning my seminary internship in the campus ministry at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma.
Until that day, my familiarity with salmon was restricted to the “salmon loaf” we were sometimes served for school lunch back in Wisconsin where I grew up. On one particular day while I was fishing for trout, I literally stumbled over the biggest fish I ever saw—spring chinook from the Columbia River who’d returned to the place of their birth to spawn, die, and begin the circle of life all over again. I remember being absolutely transfixed by the drama playing out before me. I didn’t understand this experience until much later but it left a lasting impression.
In the branch of Lutheranism that I was raised in, personal experience of the sacred was not recognized, much less encouraged. Spiritual experience was for mystics and Pentecostals! Yet reflecting back, I can only describe what I felt and saw that day as a deeply spiritual experience—an encounter with the divine. In retrospect, the most profound I’ve ever had.
Fish are fish of course, and it’s a mistake to project human emotions or motivations onto them. But the salmon I saw struck me as incredibly “Christ-like” in their tenacious efforts to sacrifice their lives so that the next generation along with the riparian ecosystem around them could live. Author David James Duncan has written eloquently about this connection in his books. Later, I learned that nearly 140 different species of plants and animals depend upon the living and dead bodies of salmon. Salmon were the life-bringers to the scoured-out watersheds of the Pacific Northwest after the retreat of that last glacier 10,000 years ago. So here was creation, death, and resurrection right in front of me and embodied in these amazing creatures.
Suffice it to say that salmon are important to people, especially to the tribal people for whom the Columbia watershed has been home for millennia. They are also the keystone species for an entire ecosystem. Stories from tribal people reflect this reality. Every person here tonight has their own salmon story.
A Historic Moment
All that being said, as Joseph Bogaard stated earlier, salmon are in trouble in our region and with them a way of life not only for native people but for all of us who depend upon healthy watersheds—which is all of us. 28 stocks of Pacific Salmon are currently listed under the Endangered Species Act; half of those are from the Columbia River. The Columbia River watershed was once home to the largest, most diverse and numerous runs of salmon in North America, perhaps much higher than the 12-16 million annual runs that biologists have previously estimated.
Today, Columbia River Salmon have been cut off from 40 percent of their historic range by development of the river for maximum hydropower, transportation, and to accommodate downstream development. In spite of the fact that they define our region—Tim Egan says the Pacific Northwest is “anyplace the salmon can still get to”—they are quickly disappearing and with them the life that they bring.
Which brings us to the treaty. One way to think of the Columbia River Treaty is as an example of what Charles Wilkinson calls the lords of yesterday — laws, policies, and ideas [we might add treaties], not people. He describes them this way,
In field after field, the controlling legal rules, usually coupled with extravagant subsidies, simply do not square with economic trends, scientific knowledge, and social values of the modern West. … The lords of yesterday wield extraordinary influence. These outmoded ideas pervade land and resource decision making in the West, far more so than in almost any other area of American public policy. This is the dead hand of the law at its most stultifying.
The Columbia River Treaty is an important component of the transformation of the Columbia River into what Richard White calls an organic machine — an industrial approach to the natural world in which a living system is modified by human interventions to yield maximum economic benefit, often heedless of the environmental or human consequences. The problem with this industrial approach is that it leaves out of the equation the voices of native people and the voices of the salmon and all the other creatures who depend on the watershed for life and sustenance. It’s an overly simplified and therefore distorted vision of reality that is responsible for our current environmental crisis.
As White points out,
The quarrels on the Columbia cannot be settled by dividing the pie. Dividing up the Columbia among users has not worked and will not work. Nor can a solution be found by reducing uses to dollars and selecting the most valuable one.”
The opportunity to re-open the 1964 Columbia River Treaty between the U.S. and Canada to include justice for Columbia River tribes and renewed consideration for the health of the environment is, if you’ll pardon the pun, a watershed moment. It’s an opportunity to challenge one of the lords of yesterday and made possible by language in the treaty itself.
In my tradition, we call this a Kairos moment—an opportunity when new possibilities and new challenges are ripe for the creation of a different, better, and more hopeful future. These sorts of opportunities don’t come along very often so it’s important for us to pay close attention and act accordingly.
A Different Vision
If the renegotiated treaty is not determined on the basis of an industrial model or a strict cost/benefit analysis, on what basis should we think about it? What are some new ways to think about the Columbia River that include not only hydro-power and flood control but also include justice for the Upper Columbia tribes in the U.S. and Canada and the environmental health of the watershed?
Some of us believe that one new way to think about the Columbia is outlined by the Catholic bishops of our region in their pastoral letter of November 2000, The Columbia River Watershed: Caring for Creation and the Common Good.
There is a lot packed into the letter and I only want to refer to a couple of points that I believe can inform the way we think about the Columbia and the treaty.
Rather than viewing the Columbia as an organic machine, the bishops describe it as a common good where signs of God’s creativity and presence are abundant; one that humans are called to be protectors and caretakers for the benefit of the entire watershed rather than simply exploiters of it. Our past decisions and actions have committed us to managing the Columbia. We can’t simply walk away from it. This makes us what the Bible refers to as stewards. It’s not a perfect term but it has the advantage of acknowledging our responsibility for the health of the watershed and all who depend upon it for life and livelihood. The letter lists 10 considerations for community caretaking which can help guide our thinking as we re-imagine not only the treaty but the future of the Columbia River watershed. Of those ten, six are especially relevant to the treaty. Note that they are not listed in order of importance.
- Consider the Common Good. “In the concept of the common good, community and individual needs take priority over private wants.”
- Conserve the Columbia Watershed as a Common Good. “We urge people to be conscious of, and respectful toward, the watershed as our common home and as the provider of necessities for the good of the whole ecosystem.”
- Conserve and Protect Species of Wildlife. “The presence and health of salmon and other species of fish in the Columbia-Snake system, in particular, is a sign of the health of the entire region.”
- Respect the Dignity and Traditions of the Region’s Indigenous Peoples. “The indigenous peoples have a wealth of spirituality, culture and traditions that call forth a need for appropriate respect and preservation. We are grateful to the First Nations and the Native Americans for the lessons they teach about respect for nature. We apologize for cultural insensitivities and lack of justice, both past and present.”
- Promote Community Resolution of Economic and Ecological Issues. As you’ve heard tonight, neither the tribes nor local residents in the path of dams were consulted during negotiations over the 1964 treaty. This is an injustice that needs to be addressed.
- Conserve Energy and Establish Environmentally Integrated Alternative Energy Sources.
At the conclusion of the letter, the bishops describe their vision for the Columbia River:
In the watershed of the future, we hope to see the best of the watershed of the past: living waters of God’s creation flowing from meadows and mountains to the ocean while providing for the needs of God’s creatures along the way. We ask people of good will to imagine what they would like the watershed to be like in ten, fifty, or one hundred years, and to work consciously to make that image a reality.
Renegotiating the Columbia River Treaty to include justice for native people and a healthy environment for the watershed is an opportunity to return the river to its rightful role as a key component of the common good.
John P. Rosenberg
 Charles F. Wilkinson, Crossing the Next Meridian: Land, Water, and the Future of the West, Island Press, 1992, xiii
 Richard White, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River, Hill and Wang, 1995, 112
 Columbia River Pastoral Letter Project, The Columbia River Watershed: Caring for Creation and the Common Good, An International Pastoral Letter by the Catholic Bishops of the Region, January 8, 2001.