Sep 122017

Clear cuts in Siletz Gorge area.
Rio Davidson photo

Members of Lincoln County Community Rights were turned back in their efforts to join a nationwide movement to give the natural environment the status of being a living thing…similar, if not identical, to the rights of human beings.

A group called Lincoln County Community Rights, an offshoot of the group that convinced a majority of Lincoln County voters to ban pesticide spraying on local forest lands, claimed that the very life of the Siletz River watershed is threatened by timber companies that were clear cutting the forests whose waters flow into the Siletz River. The group contends that accelerated timber harvesting violates the very life-giving ecology of the watershed, thereby threatening wildlife on the ground and in the waters that flow from the watershed.

Judge Sheryl Bachart admitted that the concept of a watershed having the status of a living organism was unusual, she none-the-less determined that such a finding would be better affixed to the efforts of the Community Rights organization. She then ruled that any personhood attributable to a given area of ground is unchartered legal territory. However such findings that the Earth is a person – a mechanism that creates life – has been adopted in Ecuador and a number of other countries around the world.

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The attribution of legal personality to nature or to certain elements of the natural world can be considered an attitude emerging in several doctrines as well as governments worldwide. The historical concept of the public trust, as in “held in public trust,” under the common law has been recently expanded to include the natural world or some of its elements that become protected entities like fish, trees, birds and other animals.

At the same time, various “rights of nature” have been recognized in the constitutions of several countries. These affirmations have spawned a number of lawsuits and other legal efforts aimed at non-human primates and other animals to be recognized as legal persons. In New Zealand, a river has been assigned a “legal personality” as having “natural needs” in order to remain viable. The consequences, both of the advantages and disadvantages of this approach to environmental protection, are growing in world-wide popularity and are coming under more scientific and legalistic study.

The following is news release from Lincoln County Community Rights:

Judge Sheryl Bachart has denied the Siltez River Ecosystem intervention in an active lawsuit dealing with the recently adopted rights-based law that bans aerial spraying of pesticides in Lincoln County, also known as Measure 21-177.

The judge ruled that intervention by the Siletz River Ecosystem, although an interesting idea, would not serve any purpose that is not served through the intervention of Lincoln County Community Rights, and that there was no need for an additional intervention. She stated that the argument in favor of the intervention, as well as her reasoning, would become public record and could be picked up again at a later stage of the lawsuit by a higher court hearing an appeal.

Two pro-aerial spray interests – Newport resident Rex Capri and Wakefield Farms – filed a lawsuit against the County and County Clerk in the beginning of June, contending that state law protects the “right” to aerial spraying of pesticides over the community’s right to ban it (as secured by the adoption of Measure 21-177) in order to protect health and safety.

The intervention by the Siletz River Ecosystem came about because adoption of Measure 21-177 in May secured the right of ecosystems, including the Siletz River Ecosystem, to be free from aerial spraying of pesticides. The law allows the river ecosystem to protect that right through advocates like Carol Van Strum.

“Sadly, the Siletz and other ecosystems already have the right to exist and flourish but are denied the right to defend those rights. In time the courts in this country will be unable to ignore the truth,” says Carol Van Strum, advocate for the intervention of the Siletz River Ecosystem, “but it may be too late for the Siletz.”

Siletz River Gorge area clear cuts.
Google Earth image

Over the last year, high courts in New Zealand, India, and Colombia have recognized rights for rivers and glaciers as a means of creating a higher standard of protection for those ecosystems. In Ecuador, the federal constitution has recognized rights of nature since 2008, and has held in two different legal cases that rivers have rights and that human activity was violating those rights, with restitution going to restoring the ecosystem.

“Although the Siletz River Ecosystem did not prevail, the most significant aspect of this case is that it nevertheless has raised an important concept for the courts and larger community to grapple with, namely the necessity to recognize the moral imperative of the rights of nature,” says Ann Kneeland, attorney for Lincoln County Community Rights and for the Siletz River Ecosystem.

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