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The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

The Daily Utah Chronicle

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The Daily Utah Chronicle

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Hufford & Jarvis: Restricting Environmental Personhood is Irresponsible

The Utah legislature consistently neglects to consult tribal nations when making environmental decisions.
Cecilia Acosta
(Design by Cecilia Acosta | The Daily Utah Chronicle)


Through H.B. 249, Rep. Walt Brooks (R-St. George) aims to prohibit government bodies from granting legal personhood to entities such as animals, plants, land, bodies of water and atmospheric gases.

As the environment rapidly deteriorates, an innovative solution like environmental personhood may be the answer to protecting bodies like the Great Salt Lake. The Utah legislature should take measures to prioritize environmental welfare rather than seek to interrupt endeavors in its favor.

Allowing legal personhood status for non-human environmental bodies opens doors to environmental advocacy and protects the rights and culture of Indigenous peoples. Under H.B. 249, Utahns will live in a hypocritical system allowing corporations personhood yet denying that opportunity to some of the state’s most valuable entities.

Legal Personhood

Legal personhood grants non-human entities the essential rights and protections that humans have. Recognizing environmental personhood can generate change for a suffering environment.

Ecuador was the first country to legally facilitate environmental personhood. Its constitution recognizes the right of Mother Earth to “maintain and generate its cycles, structure, functions, and evolutionary processes.” Because of this legal stipulation, Ecuador’s government revoked a mining company’s permit when it began to operate in a protected region of the rainforest.

Legal personhood also has precedent in the U.S. In 2019, the Yurok Tribe in northern California granted personhood to the Klamath River. This means that the Yurok people can bring action against people who harm the river, such as polluters.

Granting legal personhood to objects in the natural world could enable proactive and reactive measures to prevent further environmental degradation. Locally, the Great Salt Lake is suffering and its continued decline significantly threatens communities around Utah.

Entitling environmental bodies like the Great Salt Lake to their own set of legal rights could mobilize change. The majority of Utahns support this endeavor — about 60%, according to a 2023 survey conducted by Utah State University. Such support indicates the importance of the natural world to Utah’s citizens, who are supposed to be represented by the state legislature.

Misplaced Priorities

Rep. Brooks said that legal personhood has been “weaponized” when used for things other than individual persons. Personhood has certainly been and is actively being abused, though not in the way that Utah legislators are concerned about.

The Alabama Supreme Court ruled in February that frozen embryos are legally considered children. Rep. Brian King, who voted against H.B. 249, voiced his concerns about this matter.

“Talk about an abuse of the idea of legal personhood,” King told the Chronicle. “That strikes me as much more controversial than anything that we were talking about in connection with this bill.”

Corporations also already have legal rights — a reality that has opened the door for distasteful actions. A case in 2014 involved a lawsuit on the part of Hobby Lobby. The lawsuit was made in response to the Affordable Care Act, which required the coverage of certain contraceptive methods in healthcare plans. The company alleged that including birth control in their health insurance plan infringed on their right to religious freedom. Hobby Lobby won the case and a new precedent for corporate personhood was established.

The attitude of Utah’s legislature towards the concept of environmental personhood looks like a reckless and premature dismissal of a potential solution.

The state’s future lies in the health and prosperity of its natural bodies. Without intentional — perhaps radical — change, Utahns face a bleak reality.

Indigenous Rights

The Utah legislature consistently neglects to consult tribal nations when making environmental decisions, despite the tribes’ connections to the land and the disproportionate impacts of climate change that Indigenous peoples sustain.

H.B. 249 disrespects the belief systems of Indigenous communities, which acknowledge humanity as part of nature and inextricably linked with it.

“There’s a common Native belief that all things are alive and have spirit,” Dustin Jansen, director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, told the Chronicle. Because of that, he said, tribes hold an accountability and responsibility towards living things.

The bill “might take away from the argument that these things are alive and they need protection,” Jansen said. Legislators must treat environmental policy making with more care, consulting Indigenous communities and opening up possibilities rather than shutting them down.

H.B. 249 has passed in the House and the Senate. Utahns must continue to speak out against this legislation while advocating for other solutions that will protect Great Salt Lake and other vital Utah entities.


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About the Contributors
Olivia Hufford
Olivia Hufford, Opinion Writer
(she/her) Olivia Hufford joined the opinion desk at the Daily Utah Chronicle in 2023. She plans to pursue a degree in nursing, but has always been passionate about writing and journalism. Olivia grew up in both Houston and Salt Lake City and loves being in the outdoors. In her free time, Olivia enjoys running, hiking, skiing, and exploring new places.
Caroline Jarvis
Caroline Jarvis, Opinion Writer
(she/they) Caroline Jarvis is an opinion writer studying French and communications at the U. She loves reading, doing random art projects, playing guitar and taking care of her plants.
Cecilia Acosta
Cecilia Acosta, Designer
Cecilia is excited to be at the University of Utah studying Graphic Design and Animation. She's grateful to be a part of a team of such creative individuals here at the Chronicle. Although originally from Mesa, Arizona, she has been loving the gorgeous scenery, snowy winters, and fun activities that Utah has to offer. Besides art and design, she also enjoys hiking, boba tea, dancing, and journaling.

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