Citizen Yellowstone?

There is an interesting movement afoot in the western world trying to grant natural features in our landscape legal status as citizens. I first came across the movement reading an article on OutsideOnline. New Zealand has granted one of its national parks, Te Urewera, status as a citizen of the state through the Te Urewera Act. This is quite fascinating to me as an environmentalist.

I am a political moderate in most things. However, I am pretty much a complete leftist when it comes to land preservation. I believe in high density development on land we have already settled. We should leave the relatively untrammeled areas intact (though we should allow visitation in most areas for reasons I might outline in a subsequent post). Granting legal standing to parks could result in steadfast protections against moneyed interests looking to develop or exploit the land. It is a fascinating idea, but I wonder if it really works as intended?

First of all, I am no legal expert, but I am interested in legal theory. To quote Jay-Z, “I ain’t passed the bar, but I know a little bit.” Obviously, a park cannot articulate a defense in court. It has no way to express its will to human representatives, and yet it requires a human to speak for it.

The Te Umewera Act establishes a board to act on behalf of the park in Part 2 of the legislation. The board consists of 9 total members. Six of those members are nominated by the trustees of the Tūhoe Te Uru Taumatua (a Maori group). The 3 remaining members are nominated by the Minister and the Minister for Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations. I am not intimately familiar with New Zealand politics, but I think I can safely assume government officials nominate these last 3 board members.

This board would be susceptible to influence by those who do not have the best interests of the park in mind. The fossil fuel industry would try very hard to seat people amenable to their interests on these boards. If we seated Native Americans on a park boards like New Zealand has the Maori, they also are not impervious to pull of moneyed interests. If elected officials appoint the board, then the park will also be subjected to the policy whiplash we witness when administrations change, particularly when there is a change in party.

Therefore, you have vested an incredible amount of power over a park in a small group of people who are susceptible to influence. Is that worth it? It reminds me of the benevolent dictator concept. The best government would be a benevolent dictator. That dictator would have your interests at heart and the absolute power to govern in accord with those interests. However, there are two significant flaws to the concept. Where do you find or elect a truly benevolent dictator? With this board, you could be ceding almost absolute power to those unsuited to weld it. The second flaw is that not everyone’s interests align. The board might not agree internally. Even if they agree internally, does their decision agree with all stakeholders outside of the board? Probably not.

Does the situation really change from what we have in place right now? If we granted Yellowstone legal personhood in the U.S., environmental groups would still sue the board representing the park’s interests just like they sue others responsible for the park’s management today. Is the change in legal status worth the political effort it will take to make it happen?

There is also the practical problem that the law does not treat all persons the same. It is supposed to, but it is a system run by humans and imperfect. Since the beginning of recorded history, the poor and minorities have always gotten the short end of the stick within their respective justice systems. How would a park that cannot speak for itself be treated by a system that already treats the disenfranchised questionably?

The OutsideOnline article also includes statements from legal experts who argue that the United States and New Zealand share a common legal heritage. If it can work in New Zealand, then there is a chance it can work here. I would question just how similar the situations are. I believe one reason that the concept worked in New Zealand was the influence of the Maori. Maori religion is animistic and the landscape was already a kind of person to them. Many Native American religious systems are similar. The relationship between the Maori and the European colonists has been rocky at times. However, my understanding is that the Maori wield considerably more influence in New Zealand than Native Americans do in the United States. New Zealand embraces its Maori heritage (although imperfectly) while the United States has largely erased and confined the heritage of the Native Americans. The dominant religion of Christianity in the States does not present a clear path to calling landscape features “people.”

All of the above would make it sound like I am against granting landscape features legal standing. That is not really true. I just question its practicality in the United States. I would not be willing to divert too many resources already fighting for the environment to argue for the cause because I do not think that it will ultimately change very much.

The Outside article does link to a seminal article on the subject by Christopher Stone, Should Trees have Standing? – Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects. Stone makes a number of quality arguments in the article, but one in particular stood out to me. If someone is polluting a stream, the legal system can only consider damage done to those downstream of the polluter. The justice system cannot consider damage done to the stream itself. If we granted the stream legal rights, then the judge or jury could consider the damage done to the stream and what would most benefit the stream.

This concept does fascinate me. The court would be forced to consider damage done to the landscape itself. As it stands now, courts only consider damage to the landscape itself in light of the damage it does to offended stakeholders. Although the concept fascinates me, the practical matter of what constitutes damage is problematic. All use degrades. At what point does that degradation become damage? Is the Grand Loop in Yellowstone damage? What about the Newfound Gap road through the Smokies? I would argue that these roads have provided an easy entry to outdoor recreation, which I view as pivotal to cultivating environmentalism. Others might argue that they have irreparably damaged the landscape. Some could construe even hiking trails as damage. Where would draw the line?

I’ve questioned the practicality of the movement, but I would not be upset if it succeeded. I wish that we could wake up and realize that care for our natural world is in the common interest of all, including future generations. Unfortunately, we have never come together on that point. Exploitation in the present has always been the siren song for many. If granting legal status to landscapes would stem that tide, then I am all for it.

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