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Oregon Ecosystem Files Lawsuit to Defend Its Rights

The Siletz River Ecosystem in Oregon wants the courts to recognize and protect its right to be free from toxic trespass.

The Siletz River in Lincoln, Oregon. (Photo: USFWS - Pacific Region)

Part of the Series

On July 24, the Siletz River Ecosystem (SRE) in Northwestern Oregon took legal action to protect itself.

Becoming the third US ecosystem to do so, the SRE took this self-defense step by filing a motion to intervene in the lawsuit Rex Capri and Wakefield Farms, LLC v. Dana W. Jenkins and Lincoln County, and Lincoln County Community Rights.

Carol Van Strum, a farmer, author, parent, naturalist, copy editor and co-custodian of 20 acres of temperate rainforest, bottomland and river in the Oregon Coast Range, is an advocate for the intervention of the SRE. She told Truthout why.

“This is a significant and groundbreaking effort, literally from the ground, offering a far more effective, comprehensive way to protect the planet we’re part of than piecemeal campaigns to ban a single chemical or fight a single fracking or mining operation at a time,” she said. “It is also significant because it starts with communities taking back control of their lives and environment that industry-controlled governments have taken from them.”

“If Nature Has No Rights, Neither Do We”

The two plaintiffs, Rex Capri of Newport and Wakefield Farms of Eddyville, claim that it is their “right” to spray toxic pesticides aerially, and that this right is greater than the right of the people of Lincoln County to protect public health, clean water, and the rights of ecosystems and natural communities.

To see more stories like this, visit “Planet or Profit?”

The SRE has been in trouble for years. Its watershed has lost nearly half of its forest in just the last 16 years alone, and massive clear-cuts from strip logging plague the ecosystem.

Much of the area has been sprayed with pesticides from the air multiple times, and huge parts of the watershed are completely barren of vegetation. This has also resulted in critical habitat for salmon and steelhead being degraded and, in some cases, completely annihilated.

Today, because of this mistreatment, mudslides into the river are common, and pesticide run-off into the river and creek tributaries is rampant. This runoff now poses a major risk of contaminating one of Lincoln County’s main drinking water sources.

Van Strum, who has lived in the area for nearly 50 years, explained to Truthout that she herself is part of the SRE ecosystem, and pointed out that the US Declaration of Independence asserts that the laws of nature “pre-empt human law.” She also cited the Dr. Seuss book The Lorax, which chronicles the plight of the Lorax and his environment. The Lorax speaks for the trees against an entity that is seeking to destroy them. Van Strum told Truthout she is acting as the Lorax for the SRE.

“I speak for the rights of waters and forests and wildlife to challenge human violations of natural law,” she said.

Dr. Seuss had said that The Lorax was his personal favorite of his books, as it addressed economic and environmental issues. He said the book “came out of me being angry,” explaining, “I was out to attack what I think are evil things and let the chips fall where they might.”

There are precedents for ecosystems filing lawsuits to defend their rights in other countries.

Ecuador has written the rights of nature into its constitution, and in New Zealand, rivers are granted personhood with human rights. Over the last year, high courts in India and Columbia have also recognized the rights of rivers as a means of creating higher protection standards for their ecosystems.

The federal constitution of Ecuador has recognized the rights of nature since 2008, and there, two different legal cases have affirmed that rivers have rights and damaging human activity violates those rights.

The United States hasn’t taken any of these steps so far — but, of course, that doesn’t mean it never will.

“So far, I don’t think any of those efforts have succeeded in this country, but … no one [in power] gave the women’s suffrage movement or civil rights movements here much chance but ultimately, they succeeded,” Van Strum added. “I think this will, too, inevitably, because no matter how many suits and ties and shiny vehicles we hide behind, we are still and always a part of nature, so if nature has no rights, neither do we.”

Rights Essential for Nature

Court documents for the case, obtained by Truthout, state, “The Freedom from Aerially Sprayed Pesticides Ordinance of Lincoln County (hereafter “the Ordinance”) for the first time in Oregon law recognizes the rights of ecosystems and natural communities,” and, “Pursuant to Section 3(a) of the Ordinance, the Siletz River Ecosystem and all natural communities and ecosystems within Lincoln County secured legal rights to be free from toxic trespass and aerially sprayed pesticides. These rights are essential for nature — the physical world including human beings — to survive and thrive.”

The Ordinance thus sets a precedent by giving standing to ecosystems and natural communities to enforce and defend their rights through a human member of the system or community.

That means that the SRE is a real party with legal standing to participate in litigation to enforce or defend its rights. This then enables the SRE and all natural communities and ecosystems within Lincoln County to be a named party in an action brought by a Lincoln County resident or for Lincoln County to enforce or defend the ecosystem or natural community’s rights.

Kai Huschke with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), the public interest law firm representing the SRE and Lincoln County Community Rights, in a press release about the recent filing, said that this case is a perfect example of what can happen when individuals as well as communities step forward “to secure nature’s rights.”

Van Strum encouraged people around the country to fight for both their communities’ rights and nature’s rights, and pointed to CELDF as a valuable resource in these struggles.

The lawsuit is now moving forward, but there is currently no indication of when the court will respond to the SRE’s motion to intervene.

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