Three Towns Weigh In On Rights Of Nature

By Amy Kolb Noyes

Strafford resident Steve Marx thinks nature deserves the same rights afforded to people and, in light of the Citizens United Supreme Court case, corporations. And he aims to change the Vermont Constitution to guarantee those rights. With the help of the Vermont Law Schoolʼs Environmental Law Center, the Earth Law Center and others, Marx  drafted a proposed “rights of nature” article that was considered at town meetings in Strafford, Thetford and Norwich.

The article called for the towns to petition the state for an amendment to the Vermont Constitution that would “recognize in the law the natural, inherent and inalienable rights of forests, natural areas, waterways, and fish and wildlife populations of Vermont to exist, thrive and evolve.”

Marx argued, “People have rights, corporations have rights, and nature should have rights as well.” He said he does not envision the amendment would prohibit logging or hunting, but would ensure that natural resources are managed in a sustainable and ecological manner.

Norwich voters passed the article by Australian ballot, 689-284. In Thetford, Marx said, there was initially a tie vote on the floor of town meeting, but one person left and the item lost by a single vote in the second round.

Voters in Strafford amended the original article and passed it on a voice vote. The language that appeared on the town meeting warning was shortened in response to concerns that the article as originally written might open the door for expensive litigation. The article as passed reads:

To see if the voters of the Town of Strafford will vote to petition, alone or with other communities, the passage of the following amendment to the Constitution of the State of Vermont:

Chapter1, Article 22 (Rights of Nature). That the natural environment of Vermont, including its forests, natural areas, surface and ground waters, and fish and wildlife populations, has certain natural, inherent and unalienable rights to clean water and air.

The language that was trimmed went on to state, “…to health uncompromised by anthropogenic substances damaging to the systems of life and to flourishing, connected habitats which support the well‐being of the flora and fauna of Vermont. Every person in this state shall have recourse to the laws for all violations of this article, with damages recurring in full to the injured environmental system to ensure its prompt restoration.”

Marx was unphased by the change saying, “The amendment doesn’t matter because the Legislature will do what they want once they get it.”