Bishops issue statement for care of creation
by Mary Stamp
The five Catholic bishops of Washington State developed and signed, "Caring for Creation and the Common Good in the Lower Snake River Region," this fall, reported Sr. Jessica Zimmerle, advocacy director at Earth Ministry/Washington Interfaith Power and Light (WAIPL)—who supports this project with the intertribal nonprofit Se'Si'Le—and the Washington State Catholic Conference.
The Most Rev. Paul Etienne, Archbishop of Seattle, Bishop Thomas Daly of the Diocese of Spokane, Bishop Joseph Tyson of the Diocese of Yakima, and Bishop Eusebio Elizondo and Bishop Frank Schuster, auxiliary bishops of the Archdiocese of Seattle, have signed the statement, which is informed by Catholic social teaching and Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment, Laudato si'.
They were acting in solidarity, inspired by conversations with Native leaders from Se'Si'Le, who are bringing Indigenous spiritual law into the mainstream environmental movement.
The 2022 statement builds on the 2001 international pastoral letter, "The Columbia River Watershed: Caring for Creation and the Common Good," by Catholic bishops of the region.
It also follows promises in the Letter of Apology from Northwest Christian Leaders to Native Nations, signed in 1987 and again in 1997 by bishops and denominational leaders. The letter was organized by the Church Council of Greater Seattle and proposed by tribal leaders seeking solidarity in protecting their sacred land and waters.
"We are the salmon people," said Jay Julius of the Lummi Nation and president of Se'Si'Le. "Our spirit and soul would be crushed if we had no salmon."
JoDe Goudy of the Yakama Nation and vice-president of Se'Si'Le, added that "all Salmon Nations and Peoples hinge on a right and respectful relationship with the salmon. Survival of Indigenous identity and culture depends on the salmon."
In the statement, the bishops write, "We acknowledge that the decline of salmon and loss of their original habitat poses a threat to the spiritual life ways of the Original Peoples of the Northwest. In response to requests for solidarity with Indigenous leaders, we recognize that deliberate action is necessary to find ways to restore the health of the salmon of the region."
They call on "federal and state policy makers to develop and implement a holistic plan for the Lower Snake River region that seeks input from the Original Peoples of Washington as principal dialogue partners, as well as input from farmers, community members and concerned citizens."
The archbishop presented the statement to Native leaders at the International Indigenous Salmon Seas Symposium on Sunday, Oct. 30.
The event featured Indigenous leaders from the three last great salmon seas sharing ceremony, storytelling and knowledge about salmon stewardship.
Earth Ministry/WAIPL is mobilizing the faith community to support tribally led and endorsed salmon recovery efforts on the Lower Snake River.
It seeks to bring a moral message that holds the U.S. government accountable to uphold promises to Native Nations, invest in community-centered solutions and restore abundant salmon and orca runs.
The bishops write, "We must all come together to care for our common home," said Jessica.
She reported that the Columbia-Snake River Basin was once one of the world's most productive salmon habitats. Historically, the entire basin was home to 10 to 16 million salmon a year. As recently as the 1950s, nearly 130,000 wild salmon returned to the Snake River alone.
Within a lifetime, salmon runs have plummeted below 10,000 and all four salmon and steelhead populations in the Lower Snake River are at risk of extinction, she said.
Native Nations, the People of the Salmon and sovereign fishery co-managers have suffered loss of their livelihoods and culture.
With construction of four dams on the Lower Snake River came hurdles for wild fish: turbines to survive and increasingly warm slack water reservoirs to traverse. Scientists have said for many years that restoring the Lower Snake River by removing its dams may be the only way to save endangered salmon and steelhead, feed starving orcas and restore these fish to deliver to people and ecosystems in the region.
"The Northwest only receives four percent of its energy from these dams. A recent study by the Northwest Energy Coalition shows that we can easily and cost-effectively replace this electricity with renewable sources such as wind, solar and energy efficiency," she said. "Farmers and growers use river barges to move their products to market, but for less money than what we now spend to subsidize barges, we can develop alternative transport, updating rail and highway infrastructure."
Jessica said Earth Ministry/WAIPL seeks solutions that redirect tax dollars and bring a more prosperous future for all. They promote collaborative solutions that prioritize treaty promises while ensuring investment in Inland Northwest agriculture and all communities along the river.
"Faith communities care as much about people—our neighbors—as we do for creation," Jessica said.
This is why Earth Ministry/WAIPL brings Native leaders, farmers, fishermen and people of faith together to discuss the region's future.
"Faith leaders play an important role in reconciling differences and creating a path forward that honors everyone's needs while restoring the Creator's great gift of salmon," Jessica said.