Rights of Nature Takes Hold in Crestone, Colorado

By Darlene Lee and Grant Wilson, Earth Law Center

In advance of Vermont Law School’s October 19, 2018 Symposium on “Rights of Nature: Shifting Paradigms and Grounding in the Law,” case studies provide useful context for how the Rights of Nature movement is developing at the grassroots level. The case of Crestone, Colorado is a recent and exciting example.

San Luis Valley, Photo by David Herrera (https://www.flickr.com/photos/dph1110/16611120748/) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

San Luis Valley, Photo by David Herrera (https://www.flickr.com/photos/dph1110/16611120748/) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

On July 9, 2018, the Town of Crestone’s Board of Trustees unanimously approved a resolution recognizing the Rights of Nature. With this bold decision, Crestone joined the dozens of communities, cities, nations, and indigenous peoples across the world who recognize nature’s inherent rights.

Crestone’s Rights of Nature movement began with initial conversations in July 2017 between Crestone’s Mayor, Kairina Danforth, and Myra L. Jackson, a decades-long Crestone visitor who is also Senior Advisor on Whole Earth Civics for the Geoversiv Foundation and a Rights of Nature expert.

“Mayor Danforth shared that the Native-American name for Crestone was A’tahnang, which meant a place of the heart, and it has everything to do with the expanse of Nature as a sanctuary that places a ‘bungee cord’ on those who call this wild place home,” shared Myra Jackson. “In the case of Crestone, formal recognition of the Rights of Nature seemed a certain path for unifying a community deeply searching for answers to real concerns around governance and future resiliency.”

The Process for a Successful Rights of Nature Resolution in Crestone

After additional local leaders expressed interest, Crestone invited Earth Law Center (ELC) to speak at a local Rights of Nature event. One of ELC’s primary goals is to connect and catalyze local partnerships towards advancing the Rights of Nature. ELC has a regional office in Boulder, Colorado, about four hours from Crestone.

Crestone hosted the Rights of Nature event at the Colorado College Baca Campus on May 18, 2018. Thanks in large part to outreach by the local newspaper, The Crestone Eagle, over 50 community members attended. These included highly respected environmental voices, such as John P. Milton, the pioneering ecologist and spiritual leader who helped write several foundational U.S. environmental laws.

After ELC presented and held a Q&A, over a dozen community members stayed late to discuss their thoughts on protecting the San Luis Valley. Their deep and genuine interest in protecting nature ultimately fueled the Rights of Nature resolution that passed just weeks later.

Sample PowerPoint slide from ELC’s presentation

Sample PowerPoint slide from ELC’s presentation

Mayor Danforth then consulted Myra L. Jackson, Grant Wilson of ELC, and Marsha Moutrie, the attorney who co-led the drafting of Santa Monica’s own Rights of Nature law—the Santa Monica Sustainability Rights Ordinance, which Earth Law Center also worked on—to help draft a resolution to present to the Town of Crestone’s Board of Trustees.

“What worked in Crestone had a great deal to do with generosity, extraordinary timing, responsive, expert partners and showing up,” said Myra Jackson. She identified the top four key factors in the campaign’s success:

  1. Identification of trusted voices in the community whose support is sought on key decisions.
  2. A public education and awareness strategy accomplished by a Town Hall style meeting on Rights of Nature led by Grant Wilson of Earth Law Center in a room filled with key stakeholders; trusted Elders; experts and advocates on Crestone’s parks, wildlife refuge areas and environmental protection efforts; the Town Attorney; and most importantly, the citizens of Crestone, residents of the Baca and surrounding municipal governments. As well, an article researched by Darlene Lee and published in the Crestone Eagle (local papers are essential) and scores of research and communications developed by Earth Law Center throughout the entire process were important.
  3. Legal expertise and guidance, including from Earth Law Center and the former city attorney of Santa Monica, Marsha Moutrie. Crestone, like Santa Monica, selected a resolution to make a firm policy statement and then secured the full support of the Town Attorney.
  4. An appreciation for the incremental steps needed to garner support from the board of trustees, and the will to continue toward an ordinance.

What Does the Resolution Say?

The resolution first acknowledges the area’s unique history as a sacred place:

WHEREAS, special recognition of the primacy of this relationship existed in the region long before the town of Crestone was founded, when Native American tribes considered the area to be sacred land and journeyed here for rites of passage seeking insight and rejuvenation.

The resolution also recognizes the longstanding role of humans as environmental stewards:

WHEREAS, today, as in the past, visitors and residents alike receive nourishment, inner peace, and spiritual renewal from the region’s pristine sacred land, and town residents reciprocate these gifts by serving as stewards of the natural environment;

And crucially, the resolution makes a bold commitment to recognizing the Rights of Nature in Crestone:

…the Town of Crestone does officially recognize that nature, natural ecosystems, communities, and all species possess intrinsic and inalienable rights which must be effectuated to protect life on Earth.

The full resolution is available on Earth Law Center’s Crestone page.

Next Steps

After recognizing the Rights of Nature, Crestone will now work to put this new resolution into practice. “Crestone is moving quickly toward Home Rule in order to bring forth an ordinance on Rights of Nature, a move that we hope will inspire surrounding communities to recognize the Rights of Nature that will bring about a shared approach as a region to protect Nature,” says Myra Jackson.

Meanwhile, many of the actors behind the Crestone resolution are now working on a Community Toolkit to inspire other municipalities to launch similar efforts. “The toolkit will empower communities across the U.S. to create a new foundation of environmental law based on nature’s rights,” said Grant Wilson, Directing Attorney at ELC. “Once hundreds of cities recognize the Rights of Nature, state and federal governments can no longer ignore the movement.”

Addendum: Drafting Ordinances

Former Santa Monica City Attorney Marsha Moutrie helped advance Rights of Nature in both Crestone and Santa Monica. She now offers the following guidance on drafting Rights of Nature ordinances, which is a preview of the type of wisdom that will be contained in the forthcoming Community Toolkit:

The drafting and presentation of Rights of Nature ordinances can maximize their efficacy.

Findings are an example. They can promote comprehension of nature’s rights, justify the legislative body’s action by explaining the purpose and need, and establish that the ordinance expresses a core community value. For maximum impact, the findings can be tailored to the community’s circumstances. They might describe the surrounding natural setting and the community’s relationship with that setting. The findings can also supply legal context by briefly describing the world-wide movement to recognize Nature’s rights and referring to any existing state or local environmental laws/policies that protect nature.

The body of the ordinance can also be tailored to the jurisdiction’s circumstances. Generally, Rights of Nature ordinances recognize the rights of living things to exist and flourish, and/or the rights of natural communities/ecosystems to regenerate and evolve. However, elements of the local environment may be emphasized; for instance, the importance of a local stream, river or watershed might be highlighted. And, all communities should consider including some type of mandate related to implementation. For example, the ordinance could require annual, public reports on implementation. It might include a remedies provision authorizing the city or members of the community to enforce the ordinance by filing administrative complaints with the city or by filing suit. However, in drafting a remedies provision it is important to understand the extent of the city’s legal authority and constraints imposed by federal and state law.

Likewise, the public process for considering and (hopefully) adopting the ordinance can be structured to yield positive results. For example, the legislative body might first consider a resolution proclaiming its recognition of nature’s rights. The hearing on the resolution would afford the opportunity to familiarize the community with the philosophy of living in harmony with nature and would provide a public opportunity to direct preparation of an ordinance for later council consideration. This two-step process would maximize opportunities to educate both council members and the public and thereby garner maximum support. Also, at adoption, the council could have the ordinance read publicly. Since public readings are normally waived, this unusual step would emphasize the importance of the ordinance as a community commitment and overarching principle of local governance.

Join Us at Vermont Law School on October 19

To register to attend in person: https://vjelrightsofnature.eventbrite.com.

To watch the livestream: https://www.vermontlaw.edu/live.

To watch the recorded video: https://livestream.com/vermontlawschool.

About the Authors:

Darlene Lee: Darlene has a track record of delivering against organizational objectives, having built and led high performing teams of 240+. She has worked and lived in Europe, Asia Pacific and the US—joining Earth Law Center in 2017. Darlene graduated from Cornell University with a degree in Nutritional Biochemistry.

Grant Wilson: Grant Wilson is an attorney who has advanced environmental campaigns in the United States and worldwide: from the 2010 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancún to Kenyan National Land Policy work to Deputy Director of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute in the US. Grant earned a degree in Environmental Policy from Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University, and a J.D. with a Certificate in Environmental and Natural Resources Law from Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon.

Learn more about Earth Law Center at www.earthlawcenter.org.

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