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The Elbert Files: Rights of nature


Michael V. Reagen asked recently if I would write about the “rights of nature” movement.

You may remember Reagen, who spent two decades in Des Moines, first as head of the Iowa Department of Social Services (1979-1989) and then as president of the Greater Des Moines Chamber of Commerce Federation (1989-1999).

He is now in the Naples, Fla., area, where many metro-area business leaders have second homes and where there is no shortage of demand for his academic, administrative and consulting talents.  

Reagen told me that a friend had recently attended a Florida Chamber of Commerce conference where the rights of nature movement was discussed. The friend shared a PowerPoint presentation, which Reagan passed on to me.

I’ll be honest. I had not heard of the rights of nature movement, which Wikipedia says “challenges twentieth-century laws as generally grounded in a flawed frame of nature as a ‘resource’ to be owned, used and degraded.” The idea is that rivers, lakes, forests and other natural systems have rights, just as human beings do, and that their rights are ignored at our own peril.

Des Moines conservationist/businessman Bob Riley said the movement promotes the rights of lakes, rivers, prairies and such the way People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals advocates  for animals, but without PETA’s militancy.

Wikipedia says the modern natural rights movement stems from the teachings of conservationist Aldo Leopold during the 1940s.

But, it adds, the concept has a long history with indigenous peoples around the world, including Native American tribes, which always have had a broader view than European colonizers, who viewed “nature as object and property.”

The Florida PowerPoint presentation Reagen shared was created by environmental attorney Lisa A. Kelly. “Today there are many who have studied these [rights of nature] teachings and are rethinking the human relationship with the natural world,” Kelly told her Florida audience.

“A growing number want to empower nature and are calling for changes to the current legal system,” she added.

One example she cited was in Pennsylvania where citizens of Grant Township in 2014 passed a “Community Bill of Rights Ordinance” to protect a local watershed from fracking by Pennsylvania General Energy.

The oil and natural gas production company challenged the ordinance in court and eventually won. But it took three years of litigation over the township’s unsuccessful effort to create a home rule charter and list the watershed as a party in the lawsuit.

While PGE won the lawsuit, the state ultimately decided to rescind its fracking permit, and no damage was done to the watershed.

Meanwhile, citizens in Toledo, Ohio, drafted a “Lake Erie Bill of Rights” in 2015 to protect the lake from pollution caused by agricultural runoff. Their rights referendum passed with 60% of voter support, but the effort ran into legal roadblocks and in 2020 resulted in the Ohio Legislature passing a law making it illegal to grant rights to natural systems, including lakes and rivers.

Voters in Orange County, Florida, also attempted a rights of nature referendum in 2020 but were thwarted when the state passed a law saying local governments could not grant legal rights to “a plant, an animal, a body of water, or any other part of the natural environment” and could not grant people or political subdivisions “any specific rights relating to the natural environment.”

Rather than being discouraged by efforts to block “rights of nature” activities, the movement is clearly gaining momentum.

“When you start seeing the preemption, it’s really validating,” said Melissa Troutman, an environmental journalist who appears on “Damages,” a legal podcast about environmental issues.

Preemptive laws have not slowed down the rights of nature movement. If anything, they have encouraged it by spreading the word, said the narrator of the “Damages” podcast.

And while there does not appear to be any organized “rights of nature” movement in Iowa, “people are starting to think about nature as a living thing,” said Riley, who promotes a variety of conservation efforts through his business, Feed Energy.

“We’re moving from man versus nature to man and nature,” Riley said.


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