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Tribe gives a river the legal rights of a person

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Rockies Today

September 24 · Issue #7 · View online
The big stories up and down the Rocky Mountains, curated by Mountain West News

Tribe grants Klamath River rights of personhood
This summer, the Yurok Tribe declared rights of personhood for the Klamath River—likely the first to do so for a river in North America.  As High Country News reports, the tribe’s resolution reflects the growing Rights of Nature movement, which is seen as offering a different framework for dealing with problems like pollution, drought and climate change
The Klamath River now has the legal rights of a person The Klamath River now has the legal rights of a person
A concept previously restricted to humans (and corporations), “rights of personhood” means, most simply, that an individual or entity has rights, and they’re now being extended to nonhumans. The Yurok’s resolution, passed by the tribal council in May, comes during another difficult season for the Klamath; over the past few years, low water flows have caused high rates of disease in salmon, and cancelled fishing seasons.
With the declaration, the Yurok Tribe joins other Indigenous communities in a growing Rights of Nature movement aimed at protecting the environment. Last year, the White Earth Band of Ojibwe adopted the Rights of Manoomin to protect wild rice — manoomin — and the freshwater sources it needs to survive in Minnesota. And in 2017, the New Zealand government adopted the Rights of the Whanganui River, stemming from a treaty process with Māori iwis, or tribes, that gives the river its own legal standing in court. “By granting the rights of personhood to the Klamath River, not only does it create laws and legal advocacy routes, but it’s also an expression of Yurok values,” says Geneva Thompson, associate general counsel for the tribe and citizen of the Cherokee Nation, who worked on the resolution. “The idea is that the laws of a nation are an expression of the nation’s values.”
The Yurok resolution draws inspiration from the Rights of Manoomin, as well as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which enshrines the right of Indigenous people to conserve and protect their lands and resources. Legal personhood provides a different framework for dealing with problems like pollution, drought and climate change, though no case has yet been brought to put the Whanganui, Manoomin or Klamath rights to the test in court. The crucial aspect to establishing these legal frameworks, Indigenous lawyers say, involves shifting relationships and codifying Indigenous knowledge — in other words, recognizing non-human entities not as resources, but as rights-holders.
More on the global environmental personhood movement as reported by NPR in August:
Should rivers have same legal rights as humans? A growing number of voices say yes
On a “long shot” effort in 2017 to grant the Colorado River rights:
Corporations have rights. Why shouldn’t rivers?
Colorado River ‘personhood’ case pulled by proponents
A spike in algae blooms and more Western water news
Warming drives a spike in algae blooms across Wyoming
Feds, state to study chemical exposure in El Paso County drinking water
Animas River suffered 80% die-off after 416 Fire ash flows
How wildfires may muck up the West’s reservoirs
Pollution detected in Montana fish downstream of Canada coal mines
Repealing the Clean Water Rule will swamp the Trump administration in wetland litigation
Bridging a future for wildlife
Teton County, Wyoming, considers community-funded wildlife crossings Teton County, Wyoming, considers community-funded wildlife crossings
A movement that began as banter on a West Gros Ventre Butte couch has united conservation nonprofits, galvanized popular support and landed a $10 million tax measure for crossings on the November ballot.
“It felt like a smaller number of people turned into a mass public movement for structures,” said Jon Mobeck, executive director of the Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation. The new and longtime Jackson Hole residents pushing for more wildlife-friendly roads still have work to do. They must convince the community that crossings really work, keep building the momentum and secure funds to actually get some crossings in the ground.
Anyone commuting in the summer to Wilson or over Teton Pass to Teton Valley, Idaho, can tell you: Jackson Hole traffic is increasing. It’s not just anecdotal. According to a town and county report, in 2017 motor vehicles traveled more than 592 million miles within the county, surpassing the community’s 2035 goal of 560 million miles. Our roads are busy and growing busier 20 years ahead of the projections.
Herds of the valley’s megafauna — specifically elk, deer and moose — have shifted where they call home on the landscape, concentrating on developed and semideveloped habitats. Simultaneously, those lands are being ever more chopped up and populated by people, roads and cars.
The “wall of cars” from growing volumes of traffic on Teton County highways bisects important wildlife habitat, Wyoming Game and Fish biologist Aly Courtemanch said. That “wall” functionally severs migration routes to seasonal ranges and creates perilous passages for animals that need to cross roads in their daily lives. Every added barrier like fences, homes and roads is a new obstacle to wildlife’s ability to travel in their search for something to eat, Mobeck said. “They can’t survive without moving from one food source to another,” he said. “Therefore, in the long term, if we don’t maintain these corridors then we don’t maintain these wildlife populations.”
This is one of several stories that make up the new edition of the Jackson Hole News&Guide magazine Headwaters, which “coalesces around the idea of coexisting with the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.” Find them all here:
Headwaters
More stories we're reading today
Colorado’s crowded trails mean crowded parking lots. JeffCo thinks it has a fix
Acting BLM chief recused from Grand Staircase decisions
Proposed Senate budget offers no funding for BLM headquarters move
Oil boom sparks legal brawl over mineral rights
Judge grants B.C. injunction against Alberta’s turn-off-the-taps law
Closed eastern Utah coal mine to start up again, could bring up to 400 jobs
Coal's western woes
Lawmakers quietly consider taxing electricity generation, again
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O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West, University of Montana, Missoula, Montana, 59812