DENVER — Does a river — or a plant, or a forest — have rights?
This is the essential question in what attorneys are calling a first-of-its-kind federal lawsuit, in which a Denver lawyer and a far-left environmental group are asking a judge to recognize the Colorado River as a person.
If successful, it could upend environmental law, possibly allowing the redwood forests, the Rocky Mountains or the deserts of Nevada to sue individuals, corporations and governments over resource pollution or depletion. Future lawsuits in its mold might seek to block pipelines, golf courses or housing developments and force everyone from agriculture executives to mayors to rethink how they treat the environment.
Several environmental law experts said the suit had a slim chance at best. “I don’t think it’s laughable,” said Reed Benson, chairman of the environmental law program at the University of New Mexico. “But I think it’s a long shot in more ways than one.”
The suit was filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Colorado by Jason Flores-Williams, a Denver lawyer. It names the river ecosystem as the plaintiff — citing no specific physical boundaries — and seeks to hold the state of Colorado and Gov. John Hickenlooper liable for violating the river’s “right to exist, flourish, regenerate, be restored, and naturally evolve.”
Because the river cannot appear in court, a group called Deep Green Resistance is filing the suit as an ally, or so-called next friend, of the waterway.
If a corporation has rights, the authors argue, so, too, should an ancient waterway that has sustained human life for as long as it has existed in the Western United States. The lawsuit claims the state violated the river’s right to flourish by polluting and draining it and threatening endangered species. The claim cites several nations whose courts or governments have recognized some rights for natural entities.
The lawsuit drew immediate criticism from conservative lawmakers, who called it ridiculous. “I think we can all agree rivers and trees are not people,” said Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont. “Radical obstructionists who contort common sense with this sort of nonsense undercut credible conservationists.”
The office of Hickenlooper, a Democrat, declined to comment.
The lawsuit comes as hurricanes and wildfires in recent weeks have left communities across the country devastated, intensifying the debate over how humans should treat the earth in the face of global climate change.
Flores-Williams characterized the suit as an attempt to level the playing field as rivers and forests battle human exploitation. As it stands, he said, “the ultimate disparity exists between entities that are using nature and nature itself.”
Imbuing rivers with the right to sue, he argued, would force humans to take care of the water and trees they need to survive — or face penalties. “It’s not pie in the sky,” he said of the lawsuit. “It’s pragmatic.”
Jody Freeman, director of Harvard’s environmental law program, said Flores-Williams would face an uphill battle.
“Courts have wrestled with the idea of granting animals standing,” she wrote in an email. “It would be an even further stretch to confer standing directly on rivers, mountains and forests.”
The idea of giving nature legal rights, however, is not new. It dates to at least 1972, when a lawyer, Christopher Stone, wrote an article titled “Should Trees Have Standing?”
Stone had hoped to influence a Supreme Court case in which the Sierra Club wanted to block a ski resort in the Sierras. The environmental group lost.
“But Justice William Douglas had read Stone’s article,” Freeman wrote, “and in his famous dissent, he embraced the view advocated by Stone: that natural objects should be recognized as legal parties, which could be represented by humans, who could sue on their behalf.”
That view has never attracted support in the court. But it has had some success abroad.
In Ecuador, the constitution now declares that nature “has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles.” In New Zealand, officials declared in March that a river used by the Maori tribe of Whanganui in the North Island to be a legal person that can sue if it is harmed. A court in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand has called the Ganges and its main tributary, the Yamuna, to be living human entities.
The Colorado River cuts through or along five Western states and supplies water to approximately 36 million people, including residents of Denver; Salt Lake City; Las Vegas; Phoenix; Tucson, Arizona; San Diego and Los Angeles. It also feeds millions of acres of farmland.
It is as famous for its power and beauty as it is for overuse. Scientists expect that increased temperatures brought on by climate change will cause it to shrink further, leaving many people anxious about its future.
Flores-Williams is a criminal defense lawyer known for suing the city of Denver over its treatment of homeless people. Deep Green Resistance believes that the mainstream environmental movement has been ineffective, and that industrial civilization is fundamentally destructive to life on earth. The group’s task, according to its website, is to create “a resistance movement that will dismantle industrial civilization by any means necessary.”
Flores-Williams responded to criticism that his argument, if successful, would allow pebbles to sue the people who step on them.
“Does every pebble in the world now have standing?” he said. “Absolutely not, that’s ridiculous.”
“We’re not interested in preserving pebbles,” he added. “We’re interested in preserving the dynamic systems that exist in the ecosystem upon which we depend.”