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Know the West

Pastoral letter resonates

  Dear HCN,

Thank you for the copy of your story about the Catholic Church's pastoral letter to help people appreciate the sacred and divine nature of the Columbia River watershed (HCN, 9/11/00: Holy water: The Catholic Church seeks to restore the Columbia River and the church's relevance to the natural world).

I fell in love with the Snake River watershed, its river being a major tributary to the Columbia, when I worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Idaho for 16 years. I hunted and fished the Snake's tributaries; passed up an easy shot at a trophy elk I'd called from the brush at sunset because he, his cow, and calf were just too beautiful to kill; had my own near-death experience when my raft flipped in a steep Salmon River rapid; bicycled along the roads up the Boise and Salmon rivers with my 14-year-old daughter, now 20, from Caldwell, on the western edge of Idaho, to the town of Salmon; picked cherries with my family in Emmett Valley; took my 10-year-old son on a two-day horse pack trip near McCall that he, now 25, still talks about; participated on the federal-state team that prepared the Idaho State Water Plan; wrung my hands when the Bureau of Reclamation built Teton Dam on a blue-ribbon trout stream in eastern Idaho and I witnessed more destruction when the dam broke and sent tons of water careening downstream; saw the devastation wrought by clear-cutting and past and present mining; realized the incompatibility between anadromous fish and big dams; and, as Aldo Leopold said, felt the deep frustration of a doctor who understands the cause of his patient's decline, but can do little to stop it.

I've managed, with some difficulty, to make the transition from nearly pristine Idaho to decidedly urban and very busy California. Just before I moved to Santa Cruz, I sold my rifle and gave away my fishing gear. I knew the often idyllic life I'd enjoyed was behind me; I didn't know what was ahead.

In California, my attitude about the environment changed. I concluded that sport hunting, while fostering a positive attitude toward nature, nevertheless limits a much more rewarding appreciation of God's creatures and their habitat. I realized that as a hunter I was selfishly exploiting the animals and their environment, a little like miners and dam builders.

In a sense, my change of attitude mirrors the change the Catholic bishops seem to be seeking with their pastoral letter. They want people to know that when, in Genesis 1:28, God says, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it ..." (King James Version), God meant for man to be a steward, not a destroyer, of God's creation. The Columbia River watershed is an example of God's creation in desperate need of stewardship. The bishops are asking members of the deeply entrenched opposing sides to focus on the health of the whole watershed, not on their parochial, and often selfish, interests. It's a huge job.

Thank you again for bringing this issue to my attention and for renewing my love for the Columbia River watershed. I'm now a little homesick for Idaho, but tomorrow I'll be fine. I'll ride my bike along the ocean shore and into the redwood forest. I'll watch black-tailed deer feed in a meadow, see gray whales migrating north past Santa Cruz to the Bering Sea, and ride the oldest roller coaster on the West Coast, and I'll be fine, really.

James A. Nee
Santa Cruz, California

The writer is a member of the San Agustin Catholic Community in Scotts Valley.