You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Give Rivers Legal Rights

An ancient approach to protecting nature is being revived in hopes of getting natural resources—and the people who depend on them—the protection they've always deserved.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A few months ago, the Yurok Tribe in California exercised its power as a sovereign nation and granted the Klamath River the rights of personhood. The Klamath, which runs through Oregon and deposits into the Pacific Ocean in California, has been subject to numerous attempts by energy companies to use its resources or install pipelines, such as the Jordan Cove Pipeline. In an attempt to protect the river and in response to destructive droughts that have affected the tribe’s salmon fishers, the Yurok Tribe sought to codify their ongoing attempts at revitalization by granting the river the same legal rights as a human. They followed this up with a lawsuit, joining with fishing groups to take on a recent proposal by the federal Bureau of Reclamation to reduce water levels—which would further harm crucial Coho salmon populations.

Some two thousand miles away, the Red Lake Nation in Minnesota is trying to assume protection responsibilities and oversight of the entirety of Red Lake, not just the section they currently maintain. The Lower Red Lake, unlike the portions of it outside the reservation, has avoided the environmental issues that plague the parts currently overseen by the state government. “The tribe sees the lake as a relative,” Tribal Secretary Sam Strong told visiting delegates from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Set against current capitalistic Western thinking, treating bodies of water as individuals may appear odd. But it’s not new: Before colonizers landed on the East Coast, Native nations had long treasured and protected the waterways, natural resources, and beings they shared the land with. While some tribal governments have since adopted and cashed in on the new capitalist view of nature, as a force to be transformed for personal and financial gain, many hold onto this view of nature as kin.

More urgently, the idea of extending personhood to nature—currently catching hold far beyond Indian reservations—is a response to a practical problem. Giving legal rights to a river helps compensate for the fact that the rights of those living along it are frequently being violated. Even with all the executive orders and legislation on the books, companies exploiting the environment rarely pay for its destruction in the way local communities do.

In 1972, USC law professor Chris Stone thrust the idea of rights for the environment into the upper echelon of American law with the publishing of his seminal paper, “Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects.”

The piece sought to comment on and influence a Supreme Court case set to go before the justices, Sierra Club v. Morton. The case was spurred by a 1969 lawsuit that the Sierra Club had filed against Department of the Interior Secretary Rogers Morton and the leaders of Sequoia National Park and Sequoia National Forest. The central contention centered on a call the park leaders put out for development proposals for a speck of land bordering the Sequoia Forest in Mineral King, California—land that in 1926 had been designated by Congress as a National Game Refuge. The offer was quickly seized upon by Walt Disney Productions, who planned to build a sprawling ski resort on the land. The Sierra Club, who had been pushing for increased federal protections for Mineral King, didn’t want to see the land turned into a winter Disneyland.

The Supreme Court ruled 4-3 in favor of Morton, and subsequently Disney, to the disappointment of environmentalists. But in his dissent, Justice William Douglas cited Stone’s paper and agreed it should be adopted as a legal guideline. “The river, for example, is the living symbol of all the life it sustains or nourishes—fish, aquatic insects, water ouzels, otter, fisher, deer, elk, bear, and all other animals, including man, who are dependent on it or who enjoy it for its sight, its sound, or its life,” Douglas wrote. “The river as plaintiff speaks for the ecological unit of life that is part of it. Those people who have a meaningful relation to that body of water—whether it be a fisherman, a canoeist, a zoologist, or a logger—must be able to speak for the values which the river represents, and which are threatened with destruction.”

Environmentalists’ repeated legal challenges and media campaign, including flyers of a dastardly looking Mickey Mouse hacking down the valley’s trees, ultimately dimmed Disney’s interests in the ski resort. In 1978, the plan was officially quashed when President Jimmy Carter made Mineral King part of the Sequoia National Forest with the signing of the National Parks and Recreation Act.

The proposal to grant natural entities human rights, meanwhile, was mocked at the time by the libertarians at Reason as “lapsing into parody.” But the idea fostered by Stone and Douglas—that living beings, even mute ones like rivers and mountains, deserve to have what is known in the legal world as standing, or the ability to be represented, even if they cannot represent themselves—was not so easily dismissed.

Forty years later, with environmental catastrophe nearing and a new drinking water scandal seemingly popping up every few months, the concept has started to gain serious traction.

Not all of the efforts have necessarily been successful. In September 2017, Denver attorney Jason Flores-Williams filed a case to bestow personhood rights upon the Colorado River, before being forced to withdraw his challenge in November after the state’s attorney general, Cynthia Coffman, threatened sanctions. But with more cities and towns seeking to protect their water from harmful actors, awareness of the current legal system’s shortcomings is only growing.

This past March, a lawsuit was filed after a pair of environmental groups took issue with the run-off pollutants that Iowa hog and crop agricultural operations were, and are, dumping into the Raccoon River. The legal challenge named the state and its Natural Resources and Agriculture departments and agency directors, requesting that the court institute mandatory limits on nitrogen and phosphorous pollution. The issue has plagued the water source that Des Moines uses to hydrate its citizens for years. Even with the strengthening of the Clean Water Act under President Barack Obama in 2015—which former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt called at the time “the greatest blow to private property rights the modern era has seen”—the law still exempts agricultural runoff from regulation.

This archaic loophole is the same one plaguing the Mississippi River and the Gulf Coast. Earther recently explored the recent massive dip in shrimp yields by fishers along the Gulf, finding that because the river pulls from waterways that cut through the heart of the nation’s industrial agriculture operations, dangerous algae blooms are poisoning the river’s waters and the Gulf’s beaches. Having dealt with a similar issue, and having got nowhere except for being cut off from drinking and bath water, in February, citizens of Toledo passed the Lake Erie Bill of Rights Charter Amendment, which recognized the lake’s right “to exist, flourish, and naturally evolve.”

Bodies of water are the natural first step, with other natural resources to follow. The White Earth Band of Ojibwe, in Minnesota, already carved out similar protections for their wild rice fields this past February. Outside of the U.S., similar efforts are underway. The Ecuadorian constitution states that nature “has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles.” The Maori tribe of Whanganui in New Zealand won legal rights for a river in the North Island in 2016. The Ganges River and its Yamuna tributary in India achieved a similar status the following year.

In each case, people and courts are embracing the idea of rights for the natural beings they depend on because regulatory agencies have so spectacularly proved that they do not seem to care about humans’ rights to these life-providing resources. Rather than wait on often corporatist-run institutions to plug all the loopholes, a coalition of lawyers, tribes, and citizens are taking the logical step and lifting up their natural neighbors. And if corporations and laissez-faire ideologues object to treating lakes as people, they have an easy alternative: Start treating people as people.

*This piece has been corrected to reflect that the Yurok Tribe are based in California, not Oregon.