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.
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Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
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