Feature image by Carl Schlabach

Rights of nature laws to protect ecosystems are increasing around the world, it is time the U.S. follows these examples; Cincinnati group shows how it can be done


April 17, 2023


Tish O’Dell, CELDF Senior Staff



Cincinnati, OHIO: CROW, Citizens for the Rights of the Ohio River Watershed, will be announcing the kick off of their Rights of the Ohio River Watershed charter amendment initiative petition campaign tomorrow, April 18 at 11:00 am on the steps of City Hall, 801 Plum St. The local group formed after doing research on Rights of Nature with the passage of the Lake Erie Bill of Rights (LEBOR) in 2019. CROW needs 5,246 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot providing Cincinnati voters with a chance to make history. The kickoff event will feature speakers from the CROW group, additional advocacy groups for the Ohio River, CELDF and students from Ohio University.

The decision to move ahead with legal rights protection for the watershed began with hosting a Rights of Nature speaker series in the fall of 2019. It’s been common knowledge that the Ohio River has been abused by corporate polluters for decades, including the DuPont C8/Teflon poisoning of the river which was featured in the film Dark Waters starring Mark Ruffalo as local Cincinnati attorney Rob Bilott. Coupled with that dirty history was learning that the EPA listed the Ohio River as the most polluted River in the United States for many years, which then pushed Cincinnati residents to learn more on how this could’ve happened, by hosting a Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) Democracy School. Municipalities across Ohio, facing similar environmental degradation and threats, have been working with CELDF since 2011 to assert their rights and protect their communities and nature from harmful corporate projects.  

“I am so excited to have met this great community of people willing to take a risk to protect what they love. The community of Cincinnati and the Ohio River Ecosystem is their home,” stated Tish O’Dell of CELDF.  “These people have done their homework and are eager to share their knowledge with others in their community and to put in the hard work of circulating petitions to give their neighbors a voice through a vote, which is what democracy by the people is really all about. At a time when it seems so many issues divide the community, this campaign is about bringing the community together.”

Members of CROW learned how the residents in Toledo, Ohio found themselves in a similar place on Ohio’s northern border. They also sought the help of CELDF. In 2019, Lake Erie became the first named ecosystem to be protected by a Rights of Nature law in the United States. Thanks to 61% of the people voting to amend the Toledo city charter, Lake Erie’s right to exist, flourish and naturally evolve was democratically established. However, in 2020, a Federal judge overturned the will of the people, at the insistence of an agribusiness corporation. The Cincinnati group studied the court’s decision and with legal guidance from CELDF decided they wanted to take their law a step further and spell out exactly how a Rights of Nature law could be enforced. In other words, they built upon what Toledo had accomplished and make it even better.

“We began to understand through this process that we are not only connected to the Ohio River, but that we are part of the ecosystem,” stated Jim Schenk of CROW. “There is no way that we humans can be healthy, if the ecosystem itself is not healthy and if the system is not set up to recognize this, then we have to be the catalyst for that change to the system. It is about a cultural shift as much as it is about a legal shift.” 

Cincinnati Part of Growing National and Global Movement

Ohio residents are advancing Rights of Nature as part of the broader Community Rights Movement building across the United States. Local communities and state Community Rights Networks across the country are partnering with CELDF to advance fundamental democratic, environmental, and economic rights. They have worked with CELDF to establish Community Rights and the Rights of Nature in law, and prohibit extraction, fracking, factory farming, water privatization, and other industrial activities as violations of those rights. Communities are joining together within and across states, working with CELDF to advance systemic change – recognizing our existing system of law and governance as inherently undemocratic and unsustainable.

“This effort is also about bringing the community together on an issue that is non-partisan. We all can agree that we want clean water for our families now and for the generations to come after us”, said CROW member Susan VondarHaar. “Rights of Nature is not new, it has been developed from Indigenous knowledge and understanding that we are completely interconnected with nature and the River and are not separate from it. We live in a system that recognizes rights and currently only humans and corporations have recognized rights in our system of law. It is time nature is also recognized as having rights to create the necessary balance.”

Additional Information

For additional information about the Community Rights Movement, visit www.celdf.org.

About CELDF — Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund

The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund is a non-profit, public interest law firm providing services to communities facing threats to their local environment, local agriculture, local economy, and quality of life. Its mission is to build sustainable communities by assisting people to assert their right to local self-government and the rights of nature.


Additional media coverage from their original sources: A Cincinnati Group Thinks Ohio River Should Have Rights, Toledo voters approved a bill of rights for Lake Erie. A group wants the same for the Ohio River

Additional Resources