Rights of nature
By Jake Matyas and Mary C Balzer
The Earth and its natural systems are nearing a point of no return, heading toward disastrous climate change, a significant die-off of wildlife due to habitat loss, and possibly the collapse of the food chain if insect pollinators, bats and birds continue to be killed at current rates. With drought becoming the norm, water is becoming ever scarcer — and water is the lifeblood of our existence here in the West.
The Boulder Creek Watershed forms the basis of all life in Boulder. Without the watershed maintaining its basic integrity, the forests, the animals, drinking water, and countless native ecosystems would all be at risk, especially considering the unpredictable forces of climate change.
Unfortunately, there is no indication that our current laws and policies will reverse the decline of the watershed’s health. That is because we treat it as mere property, which we exploit to the fullest extent possible without consideration of its inherent worth. For the watershed to survive, it must have a seat at the table. Nature must have a voice and must have representation when decisions are made about housing, other development, water usage, road construction, and other issues.
A community organization here in Boulder, Boulder Rights of Nature (BRON), along with partners such as Save the Colorado and Earth Law Center are proposing that we take a bold stand and try to protect the Boulder Creek Watershed by recognizing its legal rights through a local ordinance. Among the rights sought for Boulder Creek are rights to flow, to support essential functions within its ecosystems, maintain native biodiversity and exist free of pollution. The proposed ordinance would also establish an independent legal guardianship body that would defend those rights and advise local government on how to ensure Rights of Nature becomes part of the community decisionmaking.
Globally, Rights of Nature is recognized at some level of government in at least 14 other countries. It is becoming bread and butter law in Latin America, with many rivers and ecosystems being declared “subjects of rights.” In the United States, numerous Tribal Nations have recognized the Rights of Nature, including the Yurok’s recognition of the rights of the Klamath River and the Nez Perce Tribe’s recognition of the rights of the Snake River. Many other communities have acknowledged and started to implement Nature’s rights as well, including Santa Monica, California, and Orange County, Florida. Boulder can lead the way towards recognizing the rights of rivers in Colorado if Boulder Creek is protected in this way.
BRON and other local advocates are now meeting with local nonprofits, businesses, student groups, scientists, and community groups to build support for this initiative. Together, we can put Boulder on a pathway to protect its watershed for the future. Jake Matyas is an environmental policy intern at Earth Law Center and BRON. Mary C Balzer is a Board member of BRON. Jmatyas5@uoregon.edu or firstname.lastname@example.org