JANTZEN BEACH - One of the biggest challenges to those living along the Columbia River is maintaining its life-giving force for future generations, says Bishop William Skylstad of the Diocese of Spokane.

'We need to focus on issues of sustainability,' said Bishop Skylstad. 'Yes, it is wise to develop and use the river as a gift, but we need to work to develop this gift in a non-destructive way.'

The bishop gave his talk to more than 150 people who took a chartered boat tour up the Columbia River with several of the Northwest's Catholic bishops last week.

The six-hour tour was part of the communication efforts behind the Northwest bishops' 2001 pastoral letter, 'The Columbia River Watershed: Caring for the Common Good,' a 12,000-word document, four years in the making.

Bishop Skylstad one of the leading proponents of the pastoral letter and vice-president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was on board and gave his talk on boat-goers' way to the Bonneville Dam and back.

Pastoral letters are teaching documents issued by Catholic bishops on a variety of topics. The Columbia River pastoral letter calls for better stewardship and respect of the watershed, which includes 1,200 miles of the river, as well as thousands of miles of its tributaries and 259,000 square miles of surrounding area.

'The Columbia River is a river that sustains us in so many ways,' said Bishop Skylstad. 'It uplifts our human spirit, as well as nourishes us.'

Bishop Skystad was joined by Bishop Thomas Connolly, retired bishop of the Diocese of Baker, Bishop Eugene Cooney of British Columbia, and Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, retired Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Seattle.

Bishop Skylstad reiterated the words of the pastoral letter, by reminding tour participants that the document focuses on three items: the river as symbol, the river as sustenance and the river as a sign of good stewarship.

It is that sentiment that drew many of the participants on board, paying $50 for tickets.

The pastoral letter is also building interfaith bridges.

Andrew Smith, a member of the group Presbyterians for Restoring Creation, took the boat trip because of his interest in the bishops' pastoral letter and its message.

'We are working to educate people on environmental advances and energy efficient technologies, which falls in line with the mission of the pastoral letter,' said Smith.

Smith's group will hold a conference July 11-14 at Linfield College.

Robert Castagna, director of the Oregon Catholic Conference was on board for the tour, taking a break from the special session in Salem. He served on the steering committee that helped put together the letter.

'The greatest contribution of the pastoral letter is its contention that nature is sacred and that we have a responsibility to care for it, to use it wisely and to pass it on to the future generations,' said Castagna.

Loretta Jancoski, retired dean of the school of theology at Seattle University, and current director of the Center for Water and Ethics for the Archdiocese of Seattle, was on board selling copies of the letter and educating others on its message.

'The hope of the letter is that people will learn to understand the interdependence of all creation and take responsibility in creating a future where the earth is alive and vital for future generations,' said Jancoski.

'We have to get holistic and ethical about our relationship with the Columbia River,' said Jancoski.

'The environment and ecology are the keys issues of the 21st century.'