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Will Boulder embrace legal rights for plants and animals?

Boulder County is known for leading the state in matters of open space, animal rights, environmental protections and all-around tree-hugging. But next week may present the acid test for local officials' greeniness. On September 18 the county planning commission will listen to a presentation from staff and ponder whether to include a statement in their comprehensive plan, declaring that "Boulder County acknowledges the rights of all naturally occurring ecosystems and their native species populations to exist and flourish."

Whether it's approved or not, the proposed language signals that the Rights of Nature movement has landed in Colorado, complete with website and Facebook page. It's essentially a push by a wide array of environmental activists and scholars to grant a kind of legal standing to native species: If corporations that promote fracking and other forms of environmental degradation can be granted personhood in the political arena, why can't entire ecosystems have rights, too?

Since 2008, laws that specifically acknowledge such rights have been passed in countries such as Bolivia and Ecuador and more than three dozen U.S. towns and cities. The locals pushing for a similar measure in Boulder include the president of the county's Audubon Society; an attorney whose bio lists "life-long experience in the study of consciousness, nature and the law;" an "ecopsychologist and poet;" and Priscilla Stuckey, author of Kissed by a Fox: And Other Studies of Friendship in Nature.

Priscilla Stuckey.
Priscilla Stuckey.

Slipping in a line about how "trees are people, too" into the county planning documents isn't exactly awarding a constitutional right. However, Rights of Nature backers say it's a significant step toward acknowledging that current protections for native species in Boulder County haven't saved struggling populations, ranging from the lark bunting to the burrowing owl to the bristlecone pine forest, from being imperiled. But critics fear embracing the concept of legal rights for flora and fauna sets a slippery-slope precedent that can lead to further restrictions on property and energy development and genetically modified crops.

A recent communique from the Rights of Nature supporters claims that the county planning commission legal staff is prepared to recommend against incorporating the language in the comprehensive plan. That has the advocates rallying the troops to submit comments to the commission urging deeper consideration of the issue.

Will Boulder eventually join places like Santa Monica, California, in declaring that citizens have a right to "a sustainable climate that supports thriving human life and a flourishing bio-diverse environment"? Will it follow the lead of Tamaqua, Pennsylvania, in viewing ecosystems as "persons" for purposes of environmental enforcement? Or will it treat Boulder's abundant natives as second-class citizens?

In an influential 1972 law review article, Christopher D. Stone (son of investigative journalist I.F. Stone) asked if trees should have legal standing. If Boulder County officials figure the time is not yet ripe for standing up for trees -- and owls, birds, jackrabbits, short-grass prairie, etc. -- the Rights of Nature crowd are pretty sure they know the reason why: It's business, not personal.

More from our Environment archive: "Video of the Day: New Era's takedown of Xcel-linked ballot measure goes viral."


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