Advocates ‘blown away’ by attorney’s suggestion of giving trees, rivers legal rights

Advocates ‘blown away’ by attorney’s suggestion of giving trees, rivers legal rights
Attorney and Dominican Sister Patricia Siemen was among several Silver Springs advocates who spoke to more than 275 people during a public forum held in June at the Wyndham Hotel in downtown Jacksonville – Photos by Stephen Kindland

Attorney and Dominican Sister Patricia Siemen was among several Silver Springs advocates who spoke to more than 275 people during a public forum held in June at the Wyndham Hotel in downtown Jacksonville – Photos by Stephen Kindland

Avondale resident Jennifer Virzera expected to hear the latest information about the future of Silver Springs when she attended a recent public forum at the Wyndham Hotel in downtown Jacksonville. What she came away with is a notion that is almost too good for many environmentalists to believe could ever become reality.

Virzera and many of the 275 other concerned citizens who took part in the June 17 forum were blown away by a concept introduced by attorney Patricia Siemen, one of several advocates who are protesting Adena Springs Ranch owner John Stronach’s request to pump 5.3 million gallons of water a day from Silver Springs, Florida’s first major tourist attraction and one of the largest artesian spring formations in the world that springs experts say is in decline.

Stronach wants to use the water for irrigation and to raise 15,000 head of cattle on about 25,000 acres of his ranch in Marion County, situated between Ocala and the Ocala National Forest.

Environmentalists who spoke during the forum believe that if the St. Johns River Water Management District approves Stronach’s request, the effect would be devastating not only for Silver Springs, but the Silver River, the largest tributary on the Ocklawaha River that ultimately feeds the St. Johns.

Virzera already was familiar with the issue, but it was a concept presented by Siemen that caught her attention. Siemen, a Dominican Sister from Michigan and director of the Center for Earth Jurisprudence at the Barry University School of Law, introduced the notion of granting legal rights to natural entities such as trees, rivers and waterfowl that “blew her away.”
Virzera said the concept gained credibility when Siemen said that Ecuador’s Constitution has been protecting the rights of nature since 2008; and that the Whanganui River in New Zealand was given new life after being granted “personhood rights” last year.

“When she talked about Ecuador I got goose bumps,” Virzera said. “This is the first time I’ve heard about something like that.”
Alicia Smith of Riverside had a similar reaction.

“I’m happy to hear about the [idea],” Smith said. “I mean, a river is a living being. Why not fight for a river?”
After calling for a revamping of the American legal system in which “all living things” would have legal standing and could be represented by guardians, Siemen quickly placed into perspective that such change would is radical by pointing out that 150 years ago, “People thought slaves should have no rights.”
But, she said, “Our current legal system will never get us out of the mess we’re in.”

Smith said she felt somewhat empowered by the concept, but conceded that “it’s a good idea on paper” and would take a great deal of time and effort to materialize.
“Everyone was nodding their head,” she said. “We were all thinking the same thing. It’s a great concept, but how would you make that happen?”

Until then, environmental protection agencies such as St. Johns Riverkeeper will continue their fight against the Adena Springs Ranch water-use request.
Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman, whose privately funded not-for-profit agency in downtown Jacksonville serves as a voice for the St. Johns River, said before the forum that the Silver Springs issue “is at the tipping point of disaster” and could have adverse effects locally if the water management district approves the water–use permit.

“Silver [River] makes its way to the St. Johns and it will hurt us,” she said. “We have to look at the big picture. The stakes are high on both sides.”
Speaker Robert Knight agreed.

“Silver [Springs] is going down fast,” said Knight said, board president of the Florida Springs Institute that he helped to establish after state legislators all but abandoned their support of Silver Springs. “The death knell could be in our life time.”

St. Johns Riverkeeper  Lisa Rinaman spoke out at  the forum regarding adverse effects of the approval of  the water-use permit.

St. Johns Riverkeeper
Lisa Rinaman spoke out at
the forum regarding adverse effects of the approval of
the water-use permit.

Knight, who also is an adjunct professor in the Department of Environmental Engineering Sciences at the University of Florida, said that most people are surprised to hear that those who pump water from Silver Springs are getting the water free.

“We shouldn’t be doing that,” he said.
Knight said during a previous forum that the time is now for concerned people to act.
“We all think we can do something about it,” he said during a recent forum on the same topic. “We think by yelling enough and shining a bright light on these issues and putting facts out to the public that something will change.

“It’s going to take a lot of public opinion changing to get our leaders to change what they’re doing because everybody’s…trying to build the economy; but we’re doing it at the expense of Silver Springs.

“The threat to Silver Springs’ future is a very big one a very real one,” Knight said.

By Stephen Kindland
Resident Community News

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