While granting constitutional rights to trees, rivers and mountains may seem like a strange proposition to some, it makes perfect sense to Thomas Linzey, the executive director of the Community Environmental Defense Fund based in Chambersburg, PA. Linzey and his organization are working with municipalities across the country to gain legal standing for ecosystems by helping them draft ordinances to enforce their own regulations.
Since beginning his foray into Pennsylvania, he has already managed to help four towns enact legislation granting rights to the environment. This task may become more difficult in the face of federal and state authorities who argue that townships do not have the authority to wrest enforcement control.Dan Surra, a fervent environmentalist and Elk County Democrat, agrees that property rights override local ordinances such as the ones passed by the Pennsylvania towns. "I see some real constitutional problems with (those township ordinances). A better way to do this would be the community purchasing the ground and putting a permanent easement on it," he explained.
Citing comparisons to the lengthy battle that pitted abolitionists against the government, Linzey and Ben Price, the projects director for the Chambersburg group, claim that the American legal system's reliance on property ownership is wrong. They argue that the current system legitimizes the destruction of ecosystems.
"Right now, property rights of a corporation are superior to health and welfare rights, quality-of-life rights. No community has the ability to stop any destruction of the environment ... What we're advocating is a wholesale paradigm change: that Nature is not just property. We're saying natural communities have an inherent right to exist and flourish," said Price.
How successful they will be in their quest to overturn a long-established legal precedents remains to be seen, however. In addition to facing skepticism and contempt from many federal and state level authorities, Linzey and his colleagues will most likely bring down the wrath of businesses, particularly coal-mining companies, upon themselves.
Larry Maggi, a Washington County Commissioner favorable to their cause, expressed serious doubts about their chances. "I certainly applaud their efforts and the reasons behind them. But there's no question they're going to be challenged by the coal-mining companies. I'm somewhat concerned that they won't hold up in court," he said.
Any lawyers/constitutional scholars in the audience want to weigh in? While the legal case seems fairly clear cut, none of us here at TreeHugger exactly qualify as legal experts so we'd appreciate any feedback.
Via ::Ecosystem rights move forward in Washington County (newspaper)
See also: ::People and Planet: UK Students Tackling Poverty, Human Rights and Environmental Issues, ::Ancient Lights: Preserve your Rights (in England Anyways), ::Reader Question: Human Rights Associated with Food, ::FBI Alert for Treehugger Wackos