Protecting Pinyon-Juniper forests is difficult. The destruction is taking place across hundreds of thousands of square miles. There are no obvious physical choke points to intervene.
Therefore, we are advocating for a legal strategy. Specifically, a rights for nature approach. We plan to work with tribes, municipalities, and counties to pass local laws that recognize Pinyon-Juniper forests as “persons.”
Why is personhood important for Pinyon-Juniper Forests?
Personhood would allow communities affected by violations of the forest’s rights to file lawsuits on behalf of the forest. With these lawsuits, communities could ask a judge to stop destruction of the forest and to order those who have injured the forest to pay for her to be repaired.
Aren’t humans the only ones who can be described as persons?
No. In American law, the word “person” is deemed to include corporations. Corporate personhood is an old tradition with roots in the Supreme Court’s decision to protect corporate rights in a case dating back to 1819, Dartmouth College v. Woodward. By 1886, corporate personhood was solidified in Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific Railroad. To put this in perspective, women weren’t granted the right to vote in the USA until 1920. So, corporations were considered persons under American law before women were.
Does the Constitution allow rights of nature?
Not yet. The Constitution currently ensures that corporate rights are privileged over the rights of human and natural communities. Our lawsuit seeks to have the courts recognize the rights of rivers in the same way they recognized corporate rights. But, ultimately, we believe that we need to dismantle corporate rights, even if it means a new constitution.
Why should Pinyon-Juniper forest have rights?
First, we must understand what a “right” is. A right gives a person the power to ask a judge to use the power of the state to compel another person to do something. In other words, rights of nature would give communities the power to ask a judge to order men and women with guns (the police) to force corporations to stop destroying the forest.
Second, American law currently defines nature as property. Anything defined as property can be consumed and destroyed. African Americans were once defined as “property” and as property, they were enslaved and murdered. To end slavery, African Americans had to be recognized as persons. To end ecological collapse, the rights of nature must be recognized.
Will this stop us using Pinyon Pine and Juniper as sources of food, medicine, firewood, and building material?
Not as long as these uses are respectful and sustainable. Just as a human society can use limited amounts of water from a river without harming or destroying that river, we can use Pinyon-Juniper forests without destroying them. The rights for nature laws we are proposing will clearly define sustainable relationships of Pinyon-Juniper forest, while prohibiting wholesale destruction.
Doesn’t the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and similar environmental laws take care of these problems?
No. Pinyon-Juniper forests have been exploited since settlers first arrived in the West. Regulatory law has been set up to privilege the destruction of Pinyon-Juniper forests. The Bureau of Land Management (formerly the Grazing Service) prioritizes “productive uses” including ranching, oil and gas extraction, and mining. The normal NEPA process, which includes an Environmental Impact Statement, has been bypassed via a series of “categorical exclusions.” Instead, the destruction of Pinyon-Juniper forests generally only requires an Environmental Assessment, which is a much less stringent bar. Until the conception of forests as an exploitable “resource” has been undermined, the destruction of the forests will continue.
Aren’t human rights more important than the forest?
What is good for the forest is good for humans. We speak of an inalienable human right to life, but that right to life is meaningless if the natural ecosystems who give us life are denied their own inalienable right to life.
Won’t corporate rights always beat out forest rights, even if they are recognized?
We are running out of time. If drastic changes are not made, and made quickly, Earth’s life support systems will fail. If we pass these laws, we will gain a powerful new tool to protect Earth’s life support systems. If we lose, we hope you will recognize how the legal system is set up to make protecting the natural world illegal. We encourage social justice and environmental activists to consider every nonviolent tool they have at their disposal – legal or illegal.
History of the Rights of Nature
The Pinyon-Juniper Ecosystem is not the first aspect of nature to demand recognition of its rights. In 1972, an ecosystem won support from Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas in his dissenting opinion in Sierra Club v. Morton. Beginning in 2006, communities throughout the U.S. advocated for the rights of nature, many of them enacting ordinances and charter amendments to protect the health of their residential neighborhoods. By 2008, Ecuador’s new constitution recognized the rights of nature. In 2010, Pittsburgh became the first major U.S. city to ban fracking based on the rights of nature. That same year, the UN General Assembly was presented with a Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth. Pope Francis’ 2015 address to the UN admonished that “a true ‘right of the environment’ does exist.” In 2017, the New Zealand Parliament granted personhood rights to the Whanganui River as a living entity, and the Colorado River sued the State of Colorado for personhood rights in the first federal lawsuit of its kind in the United States.
What Does the Pinyon-Juniper Forest Need?
Pinyon-juniper forests exist, just like you and I do, for their own sake. A forest is not a forest to be habitat, to be food, or to sequester carbon. A forest is a forest to be a forest. It’s as simple as that. Those of us who would stand on the side of pinyon-juniper forests must remember that we do so, more than any other reason, because the forests are forests.
– Will Falk, in his essay Pinyon-Juniper Forests: The Language of Trees