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Milwaukee County recognizes rights of nature, joins global movement

a view of a river on a gray autumn day
Lina Tran
The resolution was signed steps from the Menomonee River.

Water is everywhere in Milwaukee County. The county is laced with rivers: the Menomonee, Milwaukee and Kinnickinnick. And, of course, it’s bordered by Lake Michigan to the east.

Now, the county recognizes that water, and everything living in it, has the right to exist and thrive free of human harm, such as pollution or extraction. Much the way humans have fundamental rights to live freely and with dignity. The county is the first in Wisconsin to endorse the Indigenous-led legal movement.

Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley signed the resolution last Friday, declaring the board's intent “to state clearly and unequivocally that Milwaukee County land and waterways deserves to be protected and maintained to be healthy, robust and resilient.”

The event opened with a water ceremony. Several generations of women sang in thanks, and celebration, of water. They held up shiny copper water vessels and faced the east, in recognition of where life for their people began.

Crucially, rights of nature isn’t about what humans can gain from nature.

“The rivers and lakes and natural habitats do not have value just because of their economic utility,” said Pastor Richard Shaw, president of the Milwaukee interfaith justice organization MICAH. “In the same way that our fellow human beings are not valuable just because they can give contributions to the gross national product.”

a group stands behind a black man and white woman at a table who hold up a signed paper. they all smile and clap
Lina Tran
Event attendees celebrate the signing of the rights of nature resolution.

Guy Reiter, whose Menominee name is Anahkwet, is regarded as a leader of the rights of nature movement in Wisconsin. He likened the moment to the moon landing.

“This is one step for man and then a huge step for our environment,” said Reiter, executive director of the community organization Menīkānaehkem, or Menominee Rebuilders. “That’s the way I think about it because it’s been a very long time that we’ve been able to think of our environment as a part of us. Not something that’s external, but is internal. It is who we are.”

These ideas have been around for millennia. But as a legal tool, the movement has been gaining steam across the globe, as climate change forces communities to find new ways to protect the environment. When these rights are made into law, polluters can be taken to court for infringing them.

In 2018, the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin amended its constitution to recognize the rights of nature, becoming the first tribal nation in the United States to do so. The amendment specifically prohibited frac sand mining, fossil fuel extraction and genetic engineering. And in January 2020, the Menominee tribe enshrined the rights of the Menominee River, the site of the tribe's creation. That resolution cited several threats facing the river: climate change, pollution and the proposed Back Forty mine, which would sit 50 yards from the river, near the Wisconsin-Michigan border.

Rights of nature have been written into Ecuador’s constitution and granted in Bolivia and Bangladesh. They have been invoked in legal battles to defend wild rice in Minnesota from Enbridge Inc.’s proposed Line 3 pipeline, as well as protect declining salmon from Seattle’s hydroelectric dams.

The new county resolution isn’t binding, so it doesn’t come with the teeth of legal penalties. David Liners, a leader with the statewide interfaith organization WISDOM, said it’s the first step in a long, bureaucratic process.

“Menīkānaehkem is part of our WISDOM network,” he said, speaking after the resolution was signed. “We started talking about rights of nature and said this is something that we really think, for the reasons that Dr. Shaw said, would catch on with the faith community.”

 a flock of canada geese on the beach
Lina Tran
Lake Michigan at South Shore Park.

That led a small group of WISDOM members to get in touch with their county supervisors earlier this year. Several expressed interest right away. Supervisor Liz Sumner offered to take the lead, and she eventually authored the resolution.

Next, the group wants to see this backed by the power of the law. And they hope other communities in the state are inspired to take similar steps.

As an advisory resolution, Liners explained, “This was a sense of the County Board. The next step would be to actually grant legal rights. That’s where we eventually hope to go. Right now, we’re building toward that. We want people to understand it.”

Obtaining initial support for the resolution was fairly straightforward, Liners said, though he expects more resistance as the campaign pushes for real legal rights.

Still, advocates said the resolution is an important tool. Megan Keller, a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, said Indigenous women in particular have been targeted for their activism. Rights of nature gives them legs to stand on.

Her leading concern is Enbridge’s controversial Line 5 pipeline.

“The Bad River tribe up north has been fighting pipelines that are eroding, bad and rusting underneath the Great Lakes,” Keller said. “A lot of Indigenous people have been jailed for fighting that. I feel like having this legal framework to stand on will help further that cause, but also really prevent people from being traumatized and punished for standing up for our Mother.”

The new resolution was signed at the Urban Ecology Center in the Menomonee Valley.

At the riverside, water lingered on its way to the Great Lake. Birds and insects buzzed. Truck drivers boomed over a busy bridge in the distance. Things that all had the right to thrive.

Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
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