The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund has been working in the Northwestern United States since 2005.


Lincoln County, Oregon is coming off two years of successful implementation of a Rights of Nature law that outlawed industrial aerial pesticide spraying. Such spraying is a dangerous, yet common, corporate timber industry activity that threatens aquatic ecosystems and humans. After court challenges to the county’s law, new litigation is now underway to defend and enforce the law and the rights of the Siletz River watershed.

Opposition to the organizing was orchestrated in part by CropLife America, a national industry group that collects dues from some of the world’s most powerful chemical and industrial agriculture corporations, including Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow AgroSciences LLC, and DuPont Crop Protection. According to documents obtained by The Intercept, CropLife ranked state and local issues as the top ‘tier 1’ concern for both 2017 and 2018. The documents “pinpointed Oregon [community rights efforts in particular] as ground zero for the fight,” according to The Intercept. In 2017, CropLife America launched a national campaign to provide “intense levels of support where the direst battles are,” according to the documents. A public relations firm hired by CropLife spent 44 percent of its budget in Lincoln County, and its neighbor Lane County, where other community rights organizing has been ongoing for years.

Stay on offense

As these fights continue, new county efforts  are in the works to advance water and watershed protection rights-based laws in Lane and Lincoln counties. These campaigns and other ongoing organizing are supported by years of learning, building and adaptation, from across the Pacific Northwest and the nation.

Lincoln would not be engaging in this work if Josephine and Benton counties had not taken on the timber industry, big chemical, the agri-business industry and corporate control of land. In 2014, Josephine County took a very bold but justifiable step by placing a “Freedom of Pesticides Bill of Rights” on the ballot. Despite being significantly outspent and under-supported, the idea of eliminating all commercial and industrial pesticide use received a thumbs up from over 30 percent of voters. 

In 2015, Benton County petitioners advanced a “Food Bill of Rights.” The proposed law would protect ecosystems and the right to save seed while banning genetically modified agriculture and the harmful pesticide practices that accompany that form of industrial agriculture. A full court press by the agri-business industry, along with Oregon State University managed to block the affirming vote. They were funded by millions of dollars from agri-business like Monsanto. In addition, state legislators adopted a law that “preempted” all local control over agricultural seed including GMOs.

In Coos County, Oregon, residents shared a vision for a sustainable energy system. They petitioned and put it up for a vote in 2017. The county law would ban the unpopular Jordan Cove liquified natural gas terminal and Pacific Connector pipeline (which was recently approved by the federal government). Fossil fuel interests spent $1 million to defeat the Coos effort. Despite colossal efforts to crush the people’s vision, Coos County residents’ work was a beacon for other communities.

“Our work continues to be inspired and informed by our neighbors and communities across the nation.”

 Maria Sause, founding member of Lincoln County Community Rights

Building a network

In 2013, communities across Oregon joined together to form the Oregon Community Rights Network. They declared together that “our health, safety, welfare, and survival of our local businesses, farms, ecosystems, and neighborhoods depend on restructuring the current system of governance, because it favors corporations over community-based, democratic decision-making.”

Targeting State Constitutional Change

In the build-up to Oregon’s 2021 legislative session the Oregon Community Rights Network and its partner chapters are actively reaching out to legislators, local officials, and issue groups to build support for the introduction and ultimately ballot placement for a constitutional amendment that would protect local democracy from state interference.

New constitutional language being unveiled in Oregon will ensure that local communities have the legal power to protect their rights, health, safety, and welfare, even when the state legislature is unwilling to act state-wide. Local self-government is protected by the proposed amendment so long as local law does not:

“Restrict fundamental rights of natural persons, local communities, or ecosystems secured by this Constitution, the Constitution of the United States, or international law; or

“Cause a material impediment to enforcement or adherence to expressly-stated and equitable state, federal, or international law that protects natural persons, local communities, or ecosystems, when that law protects workers, the environment, public health, privacy, anti-discrimination, civil rights, or access to housing, food, water, medicine, medical care, and education.”

This proposed amendment, drafted with assistance by CELDF, represents a vision for a more decentralized and democratic structure of government whose purpose is to protect human dignity and the ecosystems we depend upon and whose structure allows it to more authentically fulfill these missions.


Political education and relationship building is ongoing in Oregon. Check out Lane County Community Rights’ powerful statement of values.


In a small living room in one of the most economically neglected neighborhoods in the State of Washington emerged the work of Envision Spokane. A handful of local activists and residents asked themselves the question “why?”

Why, after so many years of advocacy work on behalf of neighborhoods, renters, the houseless, small businesses, the uninsured, workers, and the Spokane River aren’t things getting any better? That discussion, coupled with guidance from CELDF and effective community-wide organizing, brought forward some groundbreaking and seminal efforts in the arenas of social and civil justice that have helped fuel campaigns beyond the city.

A “Community Bill of Rights” came from the work of Envision Spokane in 2008. In that bill of rights were provisions to support the real needs of people seeking justice in the areas of healthcare access, job access, worker rights, housing access, and neighborhood empowerment.

That first wave of organizing was followed by efforts to protect workers; institute a clean and fair elections ordinance to remove corporate interference; a police accountability bill of rights to not just hold law enforcement more accountable, but to transform the purpose of policing in the community; and a “Worker Bill of Rights” in 2015 to raise the minimum wage and protect against unwarranted terminations.

These were all firsts for the “Community Rights” movement. And even though nine years of dedicated efforts have yet to see a transformation of local government in Spokane, those efforts in the name of social justice have and continue to have ripple effects locally and beyond.

In Autumn 2021 the book One-Block Revolution: How To Host, Inspire, and Catalyze Social Change will be released by Latah Books, which includes the story of Envision Spokane.

Onward from Spokane

Alongside Spokane, ballot initiative campaigns have gathered sufficient signatures in Tacoma and Bellingham, and were pursued elsewhere. The right to petition the government has become a key issue for the movement in Washington.