From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):
Leaders of the Colorado mountain town Nederland just gave their surrounding 448-square-mile watershed “fundamental and inalienable rights,” like those conferred on people and corporations — bolstering a movement that has gained traction amid concerns nature is suffering.
The Nederland resolution, which passed 5-1 on July 6, also directs town trustees to appoint guardians who can speak for nature in local decision-making the way court-appointed guardians speak for children, dementia-stricken elders and pop star Britney Spears.
Under current U.S. law, forests, mountains and rivers lack legal rights, let alone standing to be represented in court.
Proponents contend subjugating nature as a commodity, used to satisfy human demands, is leading to disaster as the climate warms and they’re pressing for a new paradigm. But federal and state law can preempt local measures, and property rights groups are girding against what they see as an environmentalist grab for moral high ground.
For now, the focus of the nonbinding resolution in Nederland (population 1,600) is simply to spur deeper conversations about effects of population growth and development — and avoid litigation. Upcoming tests include new construction in the Caribou Ridge subdivision on moose and elk habitat, and a proposed new reservoir along Boulder Creek.
“This may become a national movement. We’re at a very early stage, just getting off the ground with this,” said Nederland trustee Alan Apt, a retired publisher and former Fort Collins councilman who led the local effort. “Human needs are important, and we want to make sure we meet the needs of our human population. But we also need to think about the air, water, wildlife, trees – everything that constitutes nature. It’s a survival issue.”
At a time when studies warn of open space disappearing across the United States at the rate of a football field every 30 seconds, elected leaders in recent years have passed rights of nature ordinances in Santa Monica, Calif.; Toledo, Ohio; Grant Township and Tamaqua, Pa.; Mora County, New Mexico; and Orange County, Fla.
The concept has been circulating for decades after emerging a half-century ago in a law professor’s article. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1972 recognized possible rights of nature in a case addressing a proposed ski resort development in a federal forest, with Justice William Douglas declaring in a dissent that “public concern for protecting nature’s ecological equilibrium … should lead to the conferring of standing upon environment objects to sue for their own preservation.”
The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, an international treaty, urges leaders worldwide “to consider and recognize when appropriate the rights of nature.” The Yurok tribe in California in 2019 gave rights to the Klamath River, and the Nez Perce did so with the Snake River last year. Nature’s rights are enshrined in Ecuador’s constitution, and Bangladesh in 2019 gave rivers the same legal rights as humans.
Crestone in 2018 became Colorado’s first town to pass general rights of nature legislation, part of a push for official certification as a dark skies community that controls light pollution.
Nederland is the first municipality in the Rocky Mountain West to pass a measure specifically designating a watershed, reflecting water’s essential ecological role and recent river-protection court wins in Colombia and New Zealand based on inherent rights of nature.
Organizations leading the movement — the nonprofit Save the Colorado River in Colorado and California-based Earth Law — say legal rights for nature to exist, flourish and be restored will guide local government decisions, from proposals to build new houses and roads to routing of new pipelines to siphoning of water that humans demand…
Colorado voters’ track record on environment-oriented ballot measures, most recently ordering state officials to reintroduce wolves, has opened this as a possibility for establishing legal rights of nature.
“Young people here in Denver and across the state are talking about it,” GreenLatinos and Sunrise Movement leader Ean Tafoya said. “If corporations have personhood rights, why shouldn’t the natural world?”