Colorado’s Non-Fiction Lorax Tale

Colorado Local Science Engagement Network Science Note

When we think of regulation of the natural world we think of policy that limits who has access to which resources and how much they are allowed to alter that land, right?That’s where rights of nature organizations are coming in, changing the way we look at land regulation and perhaps taking the term “natural rights” literally. 

A broad look at the rights of nature
In May 1992, the United Nations Environment Programme Ad Hoc Working Group of Experts on Biological Diversity convened in Nairobi, Kenya for the Conference for the Adoption of the Convention on Biological Diversity.  With the following goals in mind: The conservation of biological diversity; The sustainable use of the components of biological diversity; and The fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources, a commitment was signed, amongst other things, acknowledging the value of biodiversity and the need for guidance from scientists, indigenous peoples, and women.
With an understood link between human rights and healthy natural environments, many organizations and peoples are rethinking the ways we execute ecological protection policies. Many local governments across the globe are considering and enacting “rights of nature” ordinances. The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund puts it this way:

“[Environmental] laws – including the federal Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and similar state laws – legalize environmental harms.  They regulate how much pollution or destruction of nature can occur under law. Rather than preventing pollution and environmental destruction, our environmental laws allow and permit it.”

Colorado has quite a few towns reconsidering their approach to land regulation, with some local governments grinding land “inalienable rights.” You may have read our previous Science Note about Dark Sky Communities, an example of this approach to human-land interaction. 

A Colorado Example
In early July, Nederland, Colorado became the first town to grant rights to a body of water after the Town Board approved the “Rights of Nature for Boulder Creek” Resolution in a 5-1 vote. But what does it mean when a 448-square-mile watershed has rights? They are given a lawyer? A guardian? They just exist without interruption? 
Nederland Trustee Allan Apt says “This Rights of Nature doesn’t have legal standing. … It’s a resolution that expresses a community value that we look at the big picture when we make decisions.” Therefore, this resolution is more about opening conversations about land regulation and protection of biodiversity rather than concrete legal action. Such conversation requires a shift in the way we think about land: not as property that we can develop and use for human needs, but as an ecologically important entity that has the right to exist naturally and healthfully. 
Not everyone is on board with giving the land rights. In a Lorax vs. Onceler type battle, many land development groups and individual freedoms advocates argue that rights are for humans not objects, and further assert that sustainable land development is possible, and necessary. On the other hand, many groups argue that businesses and organizations are given rights, why shouldn’t the natural world?

What’s on the Horizon
With many other Colorado municipalities considering rights of nature resolutions, including Durango, Boulder, Steamboat Springs, and Fort Collins, these conversations are far from over. As with many science-policy issues, there will be debate all over the spectrum of beliefs, and it will be important to listen to scientists, indigenous groups, and directly impacted communities as such resolutions progress towards concrete action. 

By Presley Church