Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Beyond Feelings
distributed 2/8/02 - ©2002

When my friend John told the story, he was more astounded than angry.

He had just shared something about his lean financial situation with the co-leader of a cancer survivor's group that he helps to facilitate. John had spoken of the frustration and fear that he feels. His colleague and friend responded with a passionate understanding: "Oh, I know what you mean. Cash flow is a real problem for me, too."

John's situation is desperate -- he is patching together a minimal income by leading support groups and workshops, and from part-time college teaching. He has no health insurance, lives in a rented room without a phone, and is hard-pressed to buy groceries some weeks.

His colleague's cash flow problems are somewhat different. He is an established physician with a busy oncology practice. The cash flow problems that he described to John have to do with paying the mortgage on his second home in the mountains.

In some ways, both men have similar anxieties about financial stress. Each knows the feeling of facing a bill that he can not pay. But clearly the doctor has resources and options that are unavailable to John.

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I thought of John when I read a newspaper article describing conflict about proposed uses for public lands in Montana.

In recent years, high-tech and high-powered snowmobiles have begun to venture onto the slopes of Mount Jefferson, near Yellowstone National Park. The federally-owned roadless area had been recommended for wilderness-style management a decade ago, before snowmobiles started to make frequent use of the area. In light of the changing usage, land managers have proposed an end to motorize travel in the area. Complaints about the proposed change in status have been immediate and loud.

  • The mountain's slopes are said to be the only ones in the region that offer a challenge for advanced riders on powerful snowmobiles. (It is said to be one of the four best areas in the country for "highmarking" -- a competition to see which driver can get highest on the hill without getting stuck.)
  • Advocates report that Mount Jefferson is an important corridor for snowmobilers who need to cross the continental divide there to reach popular bowls in other parts of the mountain range. But there are other users of the roadless area who have parallel needs. Mount Jefferson is critical habitat for wolverines, lynx, elk and (possibly) grizzly bears. The area is the only east-west migration corridor connecting the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem with another vast area in Idaho.

    The snowmobile users and the wildlife both have passionate claims to the unique qualities of the mountainside, and the corridor to other lands.

    But just as with John and the doctor, similarities don't make for equality. There's a difference in need between groceries and a second home. And there's a difference in need between recreation and survival uses of the land.

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    Many of the readers of these "Notes" are involved in the ministries of churches -- as parish ministers, denominational staff, or lay leaders. Our instincts and our training call us to be compassionate and caring, to honor the unique and important struggles of each person that we encounter.

    But hearing feelings does not mean that we have to adopt the agenda of those we hear. Our compassion does not have to lead us into compliance or complicity. In cases like this, we can and we should bring judgements to bear.

    A good pastor will listen with care to the doctor's worries -- and also point him toward the options and freedom that he has to solve the problems. (It might also point out his insensitivity to the dramatic needs of his colleague.)

    A pastoral approach to the people involved in land use conflicts will also listen with caring to the deep feelings of those involved. But must also be willing to push hard at the important ethical differences in scale that are often present.

    In relating to our congregations and our communities, I hope we never lose our pastoral and caring style. But I also hope that we will push the issues past the realm of feelings, and call people to face the ethical questions, too.

    A question for our readers: My information on Mount Jefferson came from "High Country News," ( a wonderful newspaper that deals with environmental, economic and cultural issues in the Rocky Mountain west. I know of, and have often used, "Facing South" ( for progressive news from the southern US. Are there other important regional news sources that you use for in-depth reporting and eco-justice awareness? I'd like to follow them, and list them on our website.


    Peter Sawtell
    Executive Director
    Eco-Justice Ministries

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