ashland.news
June 14, 2024

Local climate group joins campaign to put environmental rights in Oregon Constitution

The Oregon state capitol building in Salem. Oregon Capital Chronicle photo by Amanda Loman
May 28, 2024

Southern Oregon Climate Action Now part of coalition to put amendment before voters

By Tony Boom for the Rogue Valley Times

Southern Oregon Climate Action Now has joined a coalition that seeks to add an environmental rights amendment to the state constitution through a vote of the people.

“Many people haven’t heard of this idea and don’t understand why it is necessary,” said Alan Journet, co-facilitator of SOCAN.

Journet said government has a responsibility to manage natural resources such as air and water for current and future generations in a public trust doctrine, he said.

Peter Fargo, a spokesperson with Oregon Coalition for an Environmental Rights Amendment (OCERA), said, “We are forming the coalition. We are reaching out to interested partners across the state. We are just getting started.

“A healthy environment is a fundamental right and therefore belongs in the Bill of Rights of the Oregon Constitution. This will send a strong moral and ethical signal, and it will provide the highest protection in Oregon’s legal system.” 

Last year, in a first-of-its-kind ruling, youth in Montana successfully sued the state, arguing that it violated their right to a clean environment, which is incorporated in the Montana Constitution. The court found that climate is covered in the constitution with a guaranteed right to a “clean and healthful environment.”

In the ruling, a district court struck down a portion of the Montana Environmental Policy Act that barred the state from considering climate impacts when issuing permits for energy projects. The Montana Supreme Court upheld the ruling, which the state had appealed.

Our Children’s Trust, an organization described on its website as a nonprofit public interest law firm, has been supporting youth efforts across the nation, filing suits in every state since 2010, including the Montana case. As of last year, 14 cases had been dismissed.

A similar climate case has been brought by youth from Eugene who sued the U.S. government for violating rights. The case has been going on for nine years with a number of rulings, dismissals and reinstatements. In the latest ruling May 1, a U.S. Court of Appeals panel rejected the lawsuit.

The clear delineation of a constitutional right to environmental protection is needed but lacking in most states, Journet said. That often leads to the cases being rejected.

“Oregon doesn’t have anything like that in the constitution. You’d think we have it, but we don’t,” Journet said. “The impetus is to get the appropriate language in the constitution so the kids have a leg to stand on when they contend about government not managing resources for future generations.”

Only Montana, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island have constitutions that affirm environmental rights, a 2020 paper by attorney Cody Hoesly, of Larkins Vacura Kayser, and law professor Susan Lea Smith, of Willamette University, reported. Three other states — Hawaii, Illinois and Massachusetts — articulate environmental rights in their charters.

Montana’s constitution states: “All persons are born free and have certain inalienable rights. They include the right to a clean and healthful environment ….” It also says that citizens and the state have a duty to maintain and improve the environment for present and future generations. The constitution was adopted in 1970 at a time when the nation and states were formulating environmental protections measures.

The public trust doctrine, which gives states control or ownership of resources, has been affirmed in U.S. Supreme Court rulings going back to 1842.

Internationally, more than 160 countries have either explicit constitutional rights that supply environmental protections or other rights that have been interpreted as doing so, according to Hoesly and Smith’s paper.

A kickoff event for the campaign was held in Salem on May 4. The coalition aims to get the measure on the November 2026 general election ballot.

The campaign will take a two-pronged approach to get an amendment before voters, Journet said. An effort will be made during the 2025 legislative session to get the Oregon Legislature to refer an amendment to voters. A second effort will gather voter signatures to get the measure on the ballot.

State Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, who represents District 3, said at the May 4 event that he would sponsor legislation to put an initiative on the ballot. State Sen. James Manning, D-Eugene, and state Rep. Mark Gamba, D-Milwaukie, also said they would sponsor the measure.

By this fall, the amendment will likely be crafted and an initiative petition drive will begin, Fargo said. The first step is gathering 1,000 to 2,000 sponsor signatures before sending it to the state attorney general for review and a ballot title. Once that approval is given, full signature collection will begin.

Under current requirements, 160,551 signatures must be gathered to put the amendment on the ballot. OCERA will aim for at least 200,000, Fargo said.

OCERA is an all-volunteer organization. Fundraising will take place to collect money for the campaign, Fargo said. Individuals interested in gathering signatures can sign up at OCERAunited.org.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwriter@gmail.com. This story first appeared in the Rogue Valley Times.

Picture of Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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