Would the Grand Canyon Sue Lake Powell for More Water?

Preserving and protecting the environment has long been a priority in the United States. The nation’s first national park, Yellowstone, was created in 1872 to preserve the incredible natural beauty that captivated its earliest visitors. In time, other national parks – Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Big Bend, and many other familiar names – would join the list of national treasures. Next month, the National Park Service will celebrate its 100th anniversary.

But the preservation and protection of these treasures always has been (and is still) at the whim and discretion of its human overlords. People decide whether roads are built, buildings are constructed, or trees are cut. Parks can’t do much to protect themselves.

Or can they? The New York Times recently reported on how the attorney general of New Zealand has adopted the mindset of the country’s Maori people by providing personhood status to a national park and one of the country’s longest rivers. The Maori people are the indigenous Polynesians who have lived in New Zealand since the 1200s. In the Maori belief system, a person’s natural surroundings are as much part of them as their heads, arms and legs.

In deference to those beliefs, the New Zealand Parliament is set to approve the personhood designation for the Whanganui River, the nation’s third-longest at 180-miles. The country previously approved the same status for the Te Urewera national park, which covers 821 square miles. Both areas have been the domain of the Maori people for hundreds of years.

“The settlement is a profound alternative to the human presumption of sovereignty over the natural world,” said Pita Sharples, who was the minister of Maori affairs when the law was passed. According to the Times, personhood means, “among other things, that lawsuits to protect the land can be brought on behalf of the land itself, with no need to show harm to a particular human.”

Sounds a little odd?  Couldn’t happen in the United States, right? After all, taking a large tract of land and deciding that it should have the same rights as a person seems a little, well, out there. A thing is not a person, and a person is not a thing.

Not always – even in our country. As Mitt Romney once famously observed, “corporations are people, my friend.” Yes, corporations in our country (and most others) are considered fictitious persons under the law. Now this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, obviously, as the development of corporations has led to greater economic growth and risk-taking than would occur if individuals were always personally liable for the actions of the corporation. One can argue about what rights corporations should have, or when its shareholders should be protected or liable, but few would argue that corporations have proved to be beneficial to humankind.  

Can the same be said for our national treasures? Only time will tell. One thing is for certain, however: if it proves successful in New Zealand, there will be a move to confer personhood on natural treasures here and in other countries. And lawyers will be leading the charge for and against this new development in the law.

Posted: 7/29/2016 9:10:49 AM by Global Administrator | with 0 comments

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About This Blog

Thanks for stopping by On the Merits, the first blog from the Texas Center for Legal Ethics. On the Merits will take a close look at significant legal stories with an eye toward addressing the legal myths and misconceptions that turn up in news stories, movies, TV programs, websites, anonymous emails and other forms of mass communications. Our goal at On the Merits is to provide readers with a thoughtful examination of what the media and others are saying about the legal profession and to apply the frequently-absent context of how the legal system actually works.

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