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Colorado Sits at the Center of the Rights of Nature Debate

Colorado environmentalists are gaining ground—and water—in their efforts to secure humanlike rights for nature.

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This past fall, Denver lawyer Jason Flores-Williams filed a lawsuit that no U.S. federal court had ever seen. On behalf of the Colorado River, he sued the state of Colorado to establish “legal personhood” for the waterway, which would grant the river the ability to take corporations and individuals that threaten its health to court. The suit was dismissed in December, but for those in the rights of nature movement, its appearance in court at all was a small victory toward achieving a larger goal: to shift the legal perception of nature from property to a rights-bearing living being.

Since the 1970s, the rights of nature movement has fought to defend natural entities such as forests and waterways from human destruction. The concept gained notoriety after law professor Christopher D. Stone published his 1972 article “Should Trees Have Standing?—Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects,” in which he argued that the environment should be entitled to the same fundamental rights as people and, today, corporations. Since then, the campaign has attracted advocates around the globe. In 2017, for example, New Zealand’s judicial system granted the Whanganui River its own legal identity with “all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person.” (Appointed representatives speak for the river’s interests.) Only a few natural entities have received the same recognition from American municipal courts, but that could change, starting here in Colorado. “We’re talking about a 20- to 30-year time frame here,” says Thomas Linzey, executive director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. To affect policy, “you need 100, 200, 300 court cases [like Colorado River v. Colorado]. You gotta draw the conflict in enough places to force that up the ladder.”

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As part of that climb, Deep Green Resistance (DGR)—a radical environmental group with a chapter on the Front Range—has been working with city governments to secure legal rights for pinyon-juniper forests across the Colorado Plateau. DGR activist Will Falk says the Bureau of Land Management clear-cuts pinyon-juniper habitat to open public land for cattle-grazing. To keep the forests intact, DGR is encouraging indigenous nations on the Colorado Plateau to insert nature-centric provisions into their tribal constitutions, which would grant forests the inherent right to exist and flourish.

A couple hundred miles away, the citizen-led Boulder Rights of Nature group is working to pass an ordinance by early 2019 that would grant the county’s grasslands and forests the legal right to exist and evolve. That would mean Boulder Creek, for example, would gain the right to maintain a healthy in-stream flow, defending it against overuse for municipal or agricultural diversions. A legal victory there might not be on the same scale as one for the Colorado River, but for rights of nature advocates, it would be progress—and one step closer to turning a trickle of policy change into a torrent.

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