The Battle for Rights of Nature Heats Up in the Great Lakes
By Valerie Vande Panne
In February, the voters of Toledo, Ohio, passed a ballot initiative that gives Lake Erie and those who rely on the lake's ecosystem a bill of rights. The idea is to protect and preserve the ecosystem so that the life that depends on it — humans included — can have access to safe, fresh drinking water.
On the surface, it seems pretty logical: Humans need water to survive, and if an ecosystem that is relied on for water—in this case, Lake Erie — is polluted (in this case, with algae), then the Lake Erie Bill of Rights (or LEBOR) would ensure the rights of humans would come before the polluters (in this case, big agriculture).
Except, that's not what's happening.
Rather, in a perhaps unsurprising move, the state of Ohio has at once both acknowledged rights of nature to exist, and taken them away, with a line written in, of all things, the state budget: "Nature or any ecosystem does not have standing to participate in or bring an action in any court of common pleas."
"It's not surprising that the Ohio legislature has the shameful distinction of being the first in the country to specifically name ecosystem rights — trying to quash them rather than taking the lead in recognizing them," the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), which was involved in the initiative and is experienced with rights of nature laws and actions, said in a press release. The Lake Erie Bill of Rights has received international acclaim.
Last week, a judge ruled Toledoans for Safe Water, the local group behind the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, cannot defend the voter-passed initiative in a lawsuit brought by a factory farm against the city over the initiative. Yet, the state of Ohio is being permitted to support the farm in the lawsuit against the city.
Big agriculture, of course, is the primary source of nutrient pollution that has caused algae blooms that have denied half a million people access to clean, safe drinking water, sometimes for days at a time.
Markie Miller, Toledo resident and concerned citizen with Toledoans for Safe Water, said the new barriers to implementing LEBOR shows the citizens are on to something. "Obviously we're doing something right, because we're scaring the Farm Bureau."
As the lawsuit is set to proceed as of this writing, the judge said there was no need for the two sides (the farm or the city) to file briefs, and would, rather than hold a hearing, have a phone call on May 17. The call would be closed to the public, and without briefs, the public — who passed the initiative by more than 60 percent of the vote — will not have access to the arguments being used.
Meanwhile, according to a recent report released by the United Nations, "one million plant and animal species are on the verge of extinction, with alarming implications for human survival," the Washington Post reported.
The report specifically attributes the die-off to human activity. Worse, it points to an inevitable collapse of the natural world humans rely on for food and water.
"Nature's current rate of decline is unparalleled, and the accelerating rate of extinctions 'means grave impacts on people around the world are now likely,'" reported the Washington Post.
"All the studies say we need drastic action. If we think the courts are going to save the plants or the animals," said Tish O'Dell, Ohio community organizer with CELDF, "they aren't."
O'Dell points to the fact that the people who passed the law aren't part of the lawsuit trying to prevent its implementation, and to the fact that the state of Ohio is intervening on the side of the factory farm, "Not on the side of the people — and denies the people and the lake the right to intervene."
Laws should reflect our values, O'Dell continues. She supports a culture shift to curb the rapid decline of the natural world humans rely on. The change may take time, O'Dell said, saying, "It's like [with] segregation. That lunch counter moment, it wasn't in the courts. It was the pushing and the pushing," that shifted the courts. "That's what we have to do. As we get more and more people saying nature should have rights, doing their own laws and their own actions, it'll start shifting things."
While this shift could take time, we don't have 150 years to push or wait for nature to have the right to exist.
"We talk about climate change. It's climate crisis. In my opinion, they're committing crimes against humanity. It's homicide and ecocide. We have the scientific studies these species will go extinct. It's homicide because humans won't be able to live," O'Dell said. "We need to start getting more blunt about what is happening."
"People think the corporation is the problem," she continued, but cautions against blaming the farming industry or the oil and gas industries for our current situation: "It's your own government that's the problem, because they're protecting them."
It seems, then, we are in a time when corporations are considered people and their rights are preserved, and the rights of people — actual humans — to have access to the single thing they absolutely must have to survive, clean drinking water — are denied.
"If they think they've prevented this movement, all they've done is fired people up," Miller added.
Valerie Vande Panne is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. She is an independent journalist whose work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, In These Times, Politico, and many other publications.
This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
By Robert J. Orth, Jonathan Lefcheck and Karen McGlathery
A century ago Virginia's coastal lagoons were a natural paradise. Fishing boats bobbed on the waves as geese flocked overhead. Beneath the surface, miles of seagrass gently swayed in the surf, making the seabed look like a vast underwater prairie.
Why Didn’t Seagrasses Recover Naturally?<p>Development, nutrient runoff and other human impacts have damaged marshes, mangroves, coral reefs and seagrasses in many bays and estuaries worldwide. Loss or shrinkage of these key habitats has reduced commercial fisheries, increased erosion, made coastlines more vulnerable to floods and storms and harmed many types of aquatic life. Rapid climate change has compounded these effects through <a href="https://theconversation.com/ocean-warming-has-fisheries-on-the-move-helping-some-but-hurting-more-116248" target="_blank">rising global temperatures</a>, more <a href="https://theconversation.com/more-frequent-and-intense-tropical-storms-mean-less-recovery-time-for-the-worlds-coastlines-123335" target="_blank">frequent and severe storms</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/as-climate-change-alters-the-oceans-what-will-happen-to-dungeness-crabs-61501" target="_blank">ocean acidification</a>.</p><p>In the late 1990s, local residents told two of us who are longtime students of seagrasses (Robert "JJ" Orth and Karen McGlathery) that they had spotted small patches of eelgrass in shallow waters off Virginia's eastern shore. For years the conventional view had been that seagrasses in this area had not recovered from the events of the 1930s because human activities had <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aquabot.2005.07.007" target="_blank">made the area inhospitable for them</a>.</p><p>But studies showed that water quality in these coastal bays was <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02782971" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">comparatively good</a>. This led us to explore a different explanation: Seeds from healthy seagrass populations elsewhere along the Atlantic coast simply weren't reaching these isolated bays. Seagrasses are underwater flowering plants, so seeds are among the main ways they reproduce and spread to new environments.</p>
Eelgrass beds were restored in four bays at the southern tip of Virginia's eastern shore on the Atlantic coast. David J. Wilcox/VIMS, CC BY-ND
Sowing a New Crop<p>From our <a href="https://doi.org/10.2307/1941597" target="_blank">earlier research</a>, we knew that when eelgrass seeds fall from the parent plant, they sink to the sea bottom quickly and don't move far from where they land. We also knew that these seeds don't germinate until late fall or early winter. This meant that if we collected the seeds in spring, when eelgrass flowers, we could hold them until the fall, helping them survive over the months in between.</p><p>We decided to try reseeding eelgrass in the areas where they were missing. Starting in 1999, we collected seeds by hand from underwater meadows in nearby Chesapeake Bay – plucking the long reproductive shoots, bringing them back to our laboratory and holding them in large outdoor seawater tanks until they released their seeds naturally. After about 10 years we started gathering the grasses using a custom-built underwater "lawn mower" to collect many more of the reproductive shoots than we could by hand.</p><p>In 2001 we sowed our first round by simply tossing seeds from a boat. Our first test plots covered 28 acres of mud flats in waters 2 to 3 feet deep. Returning the following year, we saw new seedlings sprouting up.</p><p>Each year since then, the <a href="https://www.vims.edu/" target="_blank">Virginia Institute of Marine Science</a> and the <a href="https://www.nature.org/en-us/about-us/where-we-work/united-states/virginia/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Nature Conservancy's Virginia Coast Reserve</a>, along with staff and students from the <a href="https://www.vcrlter.virginia.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">University of Virginia</a>, have led a team of scientists and citizens to collect and seed a combined 536 acres of bare bottom in several coastal bays.</p><p>These initial plots took off and rapidly expanded. By 2020 they covered 9,600 acres across four bays. Several factors helped them flourish. These bays are naturally flushed with cool, clean water from the Atlantic Ocean. And they lie off the tip of Virginia's eastern shore, where there is little coastal development.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a482c2146febd6782c99960c2b55feb8"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/K9NyfPLINtk?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Sheltering Marine Life and Storing Carbon<p>Since eelgrass disappeared from these bays in the 1930s, human understanding of seagrass ecosystems has evolved. Today people don't pack their walls full of seagrass insulation but instead value different services they provide, such as habitat for fish and shellfish – including many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/conl.12645" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">commercially and recreationally important species</a>.</p><p>Scientists and government agencies also have recognized the importance of coastal systems in capturing and storing so-called "<a href="https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/bluecarbon.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">blue carbon</a>." In fact, we now know that seagrasses constitute a globally significant <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo1477" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">carbon sink</a>. They are a key tool for reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-64094-1" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">slowing climate change</a></p><p>We are working to understand the valuable services that our restored seagrass beds provide. To our surprise, fish and invertebrates returned within only a few years as the meadows expanded. These organisms have established extensive food webs that include species ranging from tiny seahorses to 6-foot-long sandbar sharks.<br></p><p>Other benefits were equally dramatic. Water in the bays become clearer as the seagrass canopy trapped floating particles and deposited them onto the bottom, burying significant stocks of carbon and nitrogen in sediments bound by the grasses' roots. Our research is the first to verify the overall net carbon captured by seagrass, and is now being used to issue carbon offset credits that in turn <a href="https://vaseagrant.org/eelgrass-carbon-credits/" target="_blank">create more funds for restoration</a>.</p><p>One big question was whether restoring seagrasses could make it possible to bring back bay scallops, which once generated millions of dollars for the local economy. Since bay scallops no longer existed in Virginia, we obtained broodstock from North Carolina, which we have <a href="https://chesapeakebaymagazine.com/return-of-the-bay-scallop/" target="_blank">reared and released annually</a> since 2013. Regular surveys now reveal a growing population of bay scallops in the restored eelgrass, although there is still some way to go before they reach levels seen in the 1930s.</p>
Restored seagrass beds (dark areas) along Virginia's Atlantic coast, with sunlight reflecting from a small island. Jonathan Lefcheck, CC BY-ND
A Model for Coastal Restoration<p>Repairing damaged ecosystems is such an urgent mission worldwide that the United Nations has designated 2021-2030 as the <a href="https://www.decadeonrestoration.org/" target="_blank">U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration</a>. We see the success we have achieved with eelgrass restoration as a prime model for similar efforts in coastal areas around the world.</p><p>Our project focused not only on reviving this essential habitat, but also on charting how restoring seagrasses affected the ecosystem and on the co-restoration of bay scallops. It provides a road map for involving scholars, nonprofits organizations, citizens and government agencies in an ecological mission where they can see the results of their work.</p><p>Recent assessments show that the restored zone only covers about 30% of the total habitable bottom in our project area. With continued support, eelgrass – and the many benefits it provides – may continue to thrive and expand well into the 21st century.</p>
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Jessica Corbett
Leaders of climate and conservation groups on Tuesday welcomed House Democrats' introduction of landmark legislation that aims to address the ocean impacts of human-caused global heating and reform federal ocean management—recognizing that, as Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva put it, "a healthy ocean is key to fighting the climate crisis."
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By Julia Conley
A federal judge in Washington, D.C. late Sunday struck down the Trump administration's proposed changes to the SNAP benefits program, potentially saving hundreds of thousands of people from losing badly needed federal food assistance.
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