Students, activists, Indigenous people push for recognition of rights for Adirondack waters
By Zachary Matson
The Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address, core to Mohawk tradition, calls on adherents to “live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things.”
The address sends greetings and thanks to the fish that purify water and provide food, to the plants that sustain life, to medicinal herbs, to animals that “have many things to teach us,” to the sun, to the moon, to the winds that bring seasonal change and to the trees that “provide us with shelter and shade, fruit [and] beauty.”
“Water is life,” it accentuates.
The right of water to flow unabated and of fish to live freely is so embedded in the Indigenous culture that it can be contradictory to suggest such rights must be formalized.
“We revere [Mother Earth] as the ultimate mother and what right do we even have to question that she has a right? She has all the rights,” Louise McDonald-Herne, Bear Clan Mother of the Mohawk Nation Council, said during a recent online forum. “What right do we have to impose our frivolous fancy on her?”
A group of environmental activists, artists, students, a dam operator and Akwesasne tribal members are pondering that question and want to grant legal rights to the St. Lawrence River watershed. Or maybe the entire Adirondack watershed.
The effort, led by organizers and artists Blake Lavia and Tzintzun Aguilar-Izzo, who live in Madrid, follows in the path of other activists who have sought to extend legal rights to nature. Across the country, and the world, natural features such as lakes, rivers and native grasses are going to court to protect themselves from exploitation and degradation.
The growing “rights of nature” movement aims to remake environmental laws by endowing ecosystems and species with rights similar to civil rights. The Raquette River or the Grasse River, the argument goes, should have the right to exist, flourish, regenerate, evolve and be restored if harmed. People or a committee of stewards are empowered to vindicate those rights in court on behalf of the protected nature, under existing examples of rights of nature.
“We want to treat nature not merely as a commodity, which can be exploited, bought and sold, but as a relative, an intrinsic member of this global community,” Aguilar-Izzo said.
While the movement has experienced limited success in the courthouse, rights of nature supporters see growing awareness and every new local ordinance as signs the idea is gaining traction.
In 2006, Tamaqua Borough, Pennsylvania, became the first community to recognize rights of nature when it banned the dumping of toxic sewer sludge. Ecuador in 2008 enshrined the rights of nature in its national constitution. The 2016 Democratic Party platform included a reference to rights of nature. The Colorado River sued the state of Colorado in federal court.
In 2020, voters in Orange County, Florida, adopted a change to the county charter granting rights to certain lakes, rivers and wetlands. A local organizer sued to stop a housing development from infringing on the rights of the waterways.
Florida lawmakers attempted to preempt the county’s authority to imbue legal rights to nature, and business groups have fought back against rights of nature initiatives across the country. Citing vague language, a federal judge in Ohio in 2020 tossed out the Lake Erie Bill of Rights passed by voters of Toledo, who were concerned about water pollution.
“Authors failed to make hard choices regarding the appropriate balance between environmental protection and economic activity,” the judge wrote. “Instead, they employed language that sounds powerful but has no practical meaning … Its authors ignored basic legal principles and constitutional limitations, and its invalidation should come as no surprise.”
In some ways, New York’s “forever wild” constitutional protections of the Adirondack Forest Preserve are a forerunner to rights of nature or something close to it.
“People bring that up wherever we are, even on the West Coast,” said Thomas Linzey, an attorney with the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights. He advises rights of nature organizers across the country. New York’s 1894 constitutional amendment “comes as close to rights of nature as anything we have seen,” he said.
Linzey said a rights of nature amendment could be crafted to strengthen Article 14 and extend protections to the entire Adirondack ecosystem. Lavia and Aguilar-Izzo said many existing protections, including Article 14, grew out of a privileged mindset that prioritized the benefits of white men above all else.
In a March online forum, Lavia, Aguilar-Izzo and a committee of high school and college students brought together McDonald Herne, Adirondack Diversity Initiative Executive Director Nicki Hylton-Patterson, Mohawk Council of Akwesasne environmental program manager Abraham Francis and others to discuss what rights of nature could look like in the North Country. During the forum and in subsequent planning sessions, the group has grappled with the challenges of formulating a model ordinance that could win the backing of local communities without being dismissed as another burdensome environmental regulation.
“People have many different perspectives and ideas that will clash, but I think that makes us stronger and helps to mesh ideas and create something beautiful,” said Anusha Pahar, a Saranac Lake High School freshman.
The group in July published three versions of the final document, including one that could be adopted as a local ordinance. The groups “St. Lawrence River Bill of Rights” includes a series of introductory statements about the history and legacy of the St. Lawrence River and a list of the watershed’s rights, including “the rights to exist, regenerate, flourish, evolve, adapt and thrive,” “the right to maintain natural biodiversity,” and “the right to be free of pollution.”
The organizers have met with local officials but key questions still remain about whether the draft ordinance can be enacted into local or county law and how the river’s rights would be enforced.
“Are we talking about specific parts of the river or a species? I don’t really know,” Pahar said. “Because if you give it to one specific thing, there’s others that will be left out.”
The protections seek to focus on the Adirondack rivers that flow into the St. Lawrence River along the territories of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe in New York and the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne in Canada. The Grasse River at the confluence with the St. Lawrence has long been the site of industrial pollution and decades-long cleanup of PCBs. Metals manufacturers contaminated the river near aluminum refineries and made federal settlements and were required to pay for environmental restoration and cleanups, according to federal documents. Alcoa, Reynolds and General Motors operated in the region.
Some of New York’s largest and most powerful dams stretch the length of the St. Lawrence River and control much of the river’s flow. Francis, a Mohawk environmental scientist, said the deepening of the river channel and construction of dams has harmed the region and impaired water.
“The river lost its voice. We never stopped resisting, we never stopped fighting, we kept showing up for the river at every turn.”– Abraham Francis, Mohawk environmental scientist
The organizers focused on creating a document through community discussion and hope to engage people in broader education about natural environments. Elodie Linck, the youth climate coordinator at the Wild Center, said she thinks many people can rally behind stories about protecting fish and habitats critical to anglers.
“The more that we can connect people, the more we can help gather support for protecting this really important place,” Linck said.
Youth perspectives, Linck said, will be crucial to protecting wild spaces in the future.
Jenna Audlin, also a Saranac Lake High School freshman, said at first the concept of rights of nature struck her as weird but came to make intuitive sense.
“When I go out in the woods, every tree is my friend, so I think that the trees and the water that feeds them, I think it should all have the same rights as we would.”– Jenna Audlin, Saranac Lake High School freshman
What about people not as connected to nature as she?
“I say this probably three times a day to my classmates,” Audlin said. “Guys, go outside.”
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