The First U.S. Rights-Of-Nature Symposium

The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) sponsored a terrific conference yesterday– The First U.S. Rights-Of-Nature Symposium at Tulane Law School in New Orleans.

The video is posted on the CELDF’s website at

If rivers, forests, species, and ecosystems had enforceable legal rights, perhaps we’d be preserving, instead of systematically destroying them.

Perhaps we should apply the “Viking way” to improve judicial decisions about our air, land. and water?


Historian Neil Oliver authored an interesting 2013 book The Vikings— A New History which described a legal system in ancient Iceland controlled by a single elected “law speaker”, but also voted upon by all free men. Here’s the   pertinent excerpt:

“The Iceland Althing met for 15 days every year, at the time of the summer solstice, and one of the most important tasks was the election of the sogumadhr—the law speaker. For a society without a written language, memory was key, and the man who could recite the law acted with the authority of a judge.  A written body of laws emerged in Iceland eventually—called , inexplicably, the Gregas or Grey Goose law—but at first the whole lot of it was learned by heart and remembered by just one man at a time.

Each party to a dispute… agreed to accept whatever judgement was handed down. As well as the wisdom of the law speaker, decisions depended upon the votes of all free men. In a system that was essentially one man, one-vote, majority and consensus were all.

By the time the German historian Adam of Bremen came to write about the ways of the Icelanders in the second half of the eleventh century, he was able to say: “They have no king, only the law.”

Civilizations and legal systems have advanced since those times.  We no longer live in small groups and villages and relationships have become more complex.

Nevertheless, it’s interesting to muse about what results might be  produced if judges’ decisions would be subject to popular ratification.  For instance, what if U.S District Court’s chief judge Jane Magnus-Stinson’s January, 2017 ruling denying the requested injunction (seeking an order to temporarily stay the planned destruction of the mature woods at Crown Hill cemetery in Indianapolis) had been subject to popular review and vote?  Would her ruling have been sustained?  Would the people have allowed the destruction of the mature woods to needlessly proceed?  Not very likely.  Not if they were adequately educated about the issues, the facts, and the alternatives, as well as the appealing prospect of the emerging legal doctrine of the inherent rights of nature.

Perhaps we should consider amending our judicial procedures to follow the Viking system to provide for popular review, especially in cases of natural heritage and ecological protection and sustainability.

Crown Hill Cemetery’s board of old-line elites says it feels unfairly put-upon by environmentalists  —  “Cry me a river!”

Following the welcome decision by the VA, announced in May, to relocate its columbaria cemetery, it’s reported that the Crown Hill board of directors is supposedly greatly irked that their destructive plan was rebuffed, i.e. reversed by the VA.  They claim they “feel beaten-up”.  Part of their victim-card-playing angst, if not merely ego-driven resentment over receiving another community black-eye, is that the opposition (the ad hoc Alliance of Crown Hill Neighbors and other organizations and individuals) to their destructive plan was conducted by unruly environmentalists sharing a populist/communitarian, and nature-oriented philosophy. Such an indignity and affront to these smug politically-connected elites who are long accustomed to getting their way in Indianapolis.

Some Crown Hill board members have also cried that they believe their private property rights were trammeled. That’s the same-ol’ baloney that their then-attorney, Steven Mears, unsuccessfully argued before the Metropolitan Development Commission in March, 2007 when their private commercial development petition was denied.  However, they conveniently neglect to mention that they operate an IRS-designated tax-exempt entity. They pay no Federal or state corporate income or sales tax nor local real estate taxes.  Yet the Board has operated in a demonstrably anti-public way, such as little public transparency and egregious violation of public water management requirements. Also, cemetery plans and policies appear to be greatly influenced by Gibraltar Remembrance Services, LLC which is a private contractor for cemetery services (via a 2007 management agreement).  Curiously, Gibraltar was described by the cemetery’s president (Keith Norwalk) late last year as the cemetery’s “parent company”. Exactly how Gibraltar transitioned from a vendor of services in 2007 to the “parent company” of Crown Hill in 2016 remains a mystery to the general public. If it’s true.

It’s apparent that the check & balance supplied by two of our Congressional representatives (Sen. Donnelly and Rep. Carson) was instrumental in “persuading” the VA and Crown Hill to agree to move the location a few hundred feet to the east to an open field.  Previously neither entity had shown any interest in such a compromise with the community which had not only proposed the better site (in the same cemetery) but also a bona fide offer of purchase from an established local conservation trust.

I bumped into one of the Crown Hill board members (Gordon Wishard) at a restaurant in February.  We had a brief, civil conversation, but he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to pointedly remind me, with typical attorney smugness, of Federal District Court’s chief judge Jane Magnus-Stinson’s January ruling denying our petition for temporary injunction against the VA.  Fortunately for the forest and the community, that unduly deferential-to-the-administrative-agency ruling was later rendered moot by the legislator-derived resolution in May (forged by the work of Sen. Donnelly and Rep. Carson) between the VA and Crown Hill to simply move the planned cemetery a few hundred feet to the east.  Thank goodness for the responsiveness and concern of these two legislators— a needed check on the increasingly deferential judiciary which is slouching towards Nineveh (the former Assyrian city which turned to dust after outstripping its natural resources) by rulings which degrade our natural environment.

So, to the poor-me laments from the poor beleaguered board and management of Crown Hill cemetery/Gibraltar, I reply: “Cry me a river!”