By Pat Bywater
Mother Nature’s allies have a new attitude.
Far-reaching implications are on the line as the movement to redefine America’s cultural and legal notion of nature takes root in our region.
Perceived threats to Lake Erie and the Allegheny River have brought concerned residents, Native Americans and environmental activists together to protect water quality by acting on or considering the establishment of rights of nature for both bodies of water.
Generally speaking, rights of nature establish the legal right for an ecosystem, body of water, watershed or other environmental feature to exist, flourish and evolve naturally, free of pollution as a healthy and clean environment. In some cases, trustees are appointed and funded to act in court to protect nature’s interests. In other cases, nature’s rights are tied to the common good and municipalities and individuals are given requirements or powers to act to protect nature.
According to the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature, activists trace the movement’s origin to the early 1970s law review article by Christopher Stone titled “Should trees have standing — toward legal rights for natural objects.” It was not until later, with book-length publications in the late 1980s and through the early 2000s, that the concept began gaining ground. Two significant early steps forward for the movement came in Pennsylvania when, in 2006, a borough passed a rights-of-nature ordinance in opposition to sludge dumping, and in 2010, when Pittsburgh used a rights-of-nature ordinance to address hydrofracking, commonly known as fracking.
In our region, one of the most dramatic rights of nature victories ever was cited during the Salamanca, New York-based Seneca Nation’s push to get Coudersport officials to abandon a plan that would have fracking water treated on the banks of the Allegheny and then released into the river after treatment.
The Senecas prevailed earlier this year, but before the outcome was clear, nation President Todd Gates cited the example of the Whanganui River in New Zealand. In 2017, after a long struggle by the native Maori people, the river was granted legal rights as a living entity and guardians were appointed to act on behalf of the river to protect those rights.
The Seneca have a similar spiritual and cultural relationship with the Allegheny, and Gates wondered aloud during a news conference if it is time for the river to be given protections similar to those in New Zealand.
To this point, there’s been no public indication that the Senecas plan a campaign for Allegheny rights of nature, but for the nation the concept appears undeniably attractive. Currently, Senecas must monitor fistfuls of municipalities and authorities across two states to detect threats to the river. Moreover, there are very different environmental ethics in Pennsylvania, where fracking is commonplace, and New York, where it is banned. An Allegheny River with rights of nature could simplify and strengthen the nation’s effort to protect the waterway.
In Ohio, people aren’t just talking about rights of nature. Inspired by a 2014 harmful algal bloom in Lake Erie that left about half a million customers of Toledo’s public water system with no service for three days, and frustrated by what they see as government’s failure to impose a solution, they took action. Activists drafted a Lake Erie Bill of Rights and collected more than 10,500 signatures to put a proposal on the ballot that would enshrine the lake’s rights in the city’s charter. Among the bill’s features: a prohibition on the issuance of any permits that would damage the lake’s ecosystem and empowerment of the city and its residents to protect the lake’s rights in court.
A legal challenge kept the measure off of Tuesday’s ballot, but activists are pursuing other routes to a vote.
As Toledoans grapple with the courts, rights of nature advocates across the globe have scored victories as significant as having the rights enshrined in national constitutions. Only time will tell if Lake Erie is granted rights and if the Senecas move to establish similar rights for the Allegheny, but one thing is clear — increasing concern about environmental degradation is changing the conversation. Mother Nature’s allies have a new attitude.
More about the rights of nature can be found on the website of the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature, therightsofnature.org
Information about the campaign for the Lake Erie Bill of Rights is available online at http://lakeerieaction.wixsite.com/safewatertoledo.