Forests, watersheds and the Salish Sea
Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory and a sterner sense of justice than we do.”
― Wendell Berry
What if we lived in a culture where all living beings, human and otherwise had a voice, and where our laws were based on our interdependence with nature? That is the premise of the ever-growing movement for the Rights of Nature which is gaining traction around the world and in Olympia.
The idea that ecosystems and their flora and fauna are living entities is nothing new to indigenous cultures whose Traditional Knowledge has long regarded them as relatives. But for Westerners citing the Biblical verse granting man dominion over the earth as license to exploit nature for human uses, the idea of nature having rights was considered absurd. But this is changing. More and more communities and countries around the world are expanding their body of legal rights to recognize the human right to a healthy environment and the right of ecosystems to “exist, flourish and naturally evolve.”
Because environmental laws were focused on the use of permits to allow a certain level of pollution and were heavily influenced by corporate pressure on legislators, CELDF initially succeeded only in helping corporate polluters write better permits. Once permits were obtained, holders basically had a license to destroy the environment with no right to intervene by community opposition.
Environmental laws are a permit to pollute
Kai Huschke of Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund recently explained the genesis of the Rights of Nature movement. Founded in the 1990s, the public interest law firm originally sought to enforce existing environmental legal structure. But CELDF quickly learned the system favored commercial and property pursuits, stemming back to the US Constitution, which granted rights to property owners (including the right to own other humans), and elevated commercial interests above others. The Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court, which granted personhood to corporations, is the latest version of this mindset.
CELDF’s efforts to protect communities within the existing legal system proved frustrating and counterproductive. Because environmental laws were focused on the use of permits to allow a certain level of pollution and were heavily influenced by corporate pressure on legislators, CELDF initially succeeded only in helping corporate polluters write better permits. Once permits were obtained, holders basically had a license to destroy the environment with no right to intervene by community opposition.
ELDF now works to change the basic structure of law that favors endless growth and development over its legitimate purpose of protecting people, communities and the environment. Using Article 1, Section l of the Constitution which asserts that power resides in the people, the fund is working for state constitutional change and assisting communities in passing local laws that protect human and ecosystem rights.
An expanding rights movement
Similar to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Rights of Nature is about building a viable political movement to change our legal structure. It directly challenges the power corporate and commercial interests hold over communities who face opposition from local governments and courts when attempting to protect their resources and way of life from commercial interests.
Who has standing?
In 1972, law professor Christopher Stone’s article, “Should trees have standing—toward legal rights for natural objects” was cited by Chief Justice William O. Douglas as the basis of his dissenting opinion in the Morton v. Sierra Club case stating, “The critical question of ‘standing’ would be simplified and also put neatly in focus if we fashioned a federal rule that allowed environmental issues to be litigated before federal agencies or federal courts in the name of the inanimate object about to be despoiled, defaced or invaded by roads and bulldozers, and where injury is the subject of public outrage.”
In Olympia, environmental advocates have experienced such obstacles when challenging land use decisions that ignore or bypass environmental laws. Olympia Urban Waters League challenge to the downtown Westman Mills project in 2018 and OlyEcosystem’s recent challenge to the West Bay Yards Project were both rejected on the basis of lack of standing. If a rights of Nature law was in place, the Deschutes River Watershed itself could have standing to be represented in court, and these challenges could have gone forward.
It wasn’t until 2006 that the Rights of Nature were legally recognized in Tamaqua Borough, Pennsylvania, which banned the dumping of toxic sewage sludge. Since then, dozens of communities in ten states in the U.S. have enacted Rights of Nature laws, including New Hampshire, Colorado, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Ohio, where Toledo, Ohio residents adopted the Lake Erie Bill of Rights in 2019.
Washington State’s Constitutional Amendment for Rights of Nature
In Washington’s 2021 session, House Joint Resolution (HJR) 4205, was introduced and referred to the Environment and Energy Committee. It proposes an amendment to the State Constitution that reads,
“The people of the state, including future generations, have the right to a clean and healthy environment, including pure water, clean air, healthy ecosystems, and a stable climate, and to the preservation of the natural, cultural, scenic, and healthful qualities of the environment.”
It appoints the state in all its forms as trustees and affirms the rights are “on par with other protected inalienable rights.” The bill, which counts LD22 Representative Laurie Dolan as one of its sponsors, will likely be reintroduced into the upcoming legislative session.
Rights of Nature has also gained international exposure. In 2008, Ecuador recognized it in its national constitution and a court decision recognized the Vilcabamba River in 2011. Legal rights for nature have also been proposed or passed in Bangladesh, Columbia, Uganda, Australia, Brazil, Mexico, India, Sweden, Holland, the Philippines and New Zealand. Several tribal nations have also recognized Rights of Nature through the adoption of laws and resolutions, including the Chippewa Nation, which was the first to adopt a law securing legal rights for a particular plant species, in this case their traditional staple crop of wild rice.
Rights of Nature are finding advocates throughout Washington State
The Washington Community Rights Network (WACRN) is drafting a mission statement to guide its actions. Some possibilities include focusing on legal rights for the Salish Sea, serving as a central support system for education, outreach and advocacy for community rights groups and communities struggling for self-governance in Washington, organizing direct action, supporting constitutional amendments, and recruiting communities to coalesce around a common goal.
Already its members are pursuing legal Rights of Nature across the state. A group in Kitsap County is trying to protect the area from overdevelopment, circulating a petition to stop clearcutting in Washington for 10 years and stop the use of toxic spraying in the forest.
Snohomish County Community Rights is also working to protect watersheds. Their website also features declassified documents about toxic poisons.
Esther Kronenberg is a regular WIP contributor. Watch Kai Hutchke’s presentation.