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Does Nature Have the Right to Defend Itself in Court?

The Siletz River Ecosystem in Lincoln County provides some of the drinking water for the county's residents. (osunikon/Flickr)
The Siletz River Ecosystem in Lincoln County provides some of the drinking water for the county's residents. (osunikon/Flickr)
September 11, 2017

NEWPORT, Ore. – Can a river defend itself in court?

On Monday, a judge in Newport will answer that question in the case of the Siletz River Ecosystem.

Last May, Lincoln County residents approved a measure banning aerial pesticide spraying – a measure that stated the river had the "right to be free from toxic trespass."

Its backers are worried that the large pesticide sprays on forests before they are logged are putting hazardous chemicals into rivers and streams, which also provide some of the county's drinking water.

Carol Van Strum was in court as the river's advocate in July when the motion to intervene was originally filed.

"That's why I call it the 'Lorax issue,'” she states. “Somebody has to speak for the trees, the rivers, the fish, the birds, everything that's out here – because no one else is going to."

Two plaintiffs representing farms in Lincoln County are looking to overturn the ban so they can continue spraying pesticides. Other opponents of the measure say its language is too broad.

Van Strum has been involved in other cases fighting for the environment, typically against the government and chemical manufacturers.

She recently published a trove of documents, known as the "Poison Papers," from legal cases over the past 40 years that detail industry's influence on the Environmental Protection Agency.

In August, “The Poison Papers” became available online. Van Strum says this case is part of that legacy, and that the movement to defend nature's rights in court has been building.

"It sounds like a novel idea, but it's not,” she stresses. “It's a matter of the courts catching up to the last 50 years of reality, and they're going to have to do it eventually. Other countries have."

Over the past year, high courts in New Zealand, India and Colombia have recognized the rights of rivers, and Ecuador's Constitution has recognized the rights of nature since 2008.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - OR