According to the Declaration of Independence,  Americans enjoy an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Another right, rooted in Roman Law and evident in early British Law, is the Public Trust Doctrine.  Serving as the basis of much environmental advocacy, as argued by Erin Ryan (College of Law, Florida State University), this doctrine represents “….a set of public rights and responsibilities with regard to certain natural resource commons, obligating the state to manage them in trust for the public.” Ryan continues by stating “To prevent private expropriation or monopolization of these critical public commons, the government—be it the Emperor, the King, or later, the elected executive and legislative branches—was entrusted to manage them on behalf of the public.” Without a healthy environment, it is difficult to imagine how the rights to life and the pursuit of happiness can be guaranteed.

The Public Trust Doctrine represents a solid basis upon which residents of a state or nation can legally demand that natural resources should be protected from abuse or mismanagement.  Our Children’s Trust, the Eugene-based  non-profit public interest law firm dedicated exclusively to securing the legal rights of youth to a healthy atmosphere and safe climate, employs the Public Trust Doctrine in efforts to hold governments accountable for the destruction of this natural resource and responsible for reversing its ongoing destruction.

It appears that courts in states incorporating into their constitution the right to a healthy environment are more receptive to legal claims that our natural resources should be protected for our children and for future generations than are states which lack such a constitutional right.  For example, in Montana where such a right exists, a lawsuit designed to protect natural resources was successful whereas in Oregon, which lacks such a provision, such a suit was not.  Given Oregon’s reputation as a green and environmentally friendly state, this absence may seem surprising.

The Oregon Coalition for an Environmental Rights Amendment brings together individuals and organization sharing the mission of redressing this oversight by urging Oregonians, through a ballot measure, to adjust the state constitution such that it grants us the right to a healthy environment.  Because the actions of Our Children’s Trust are very much tied to the need to protect our climate from the misuse of our atmospheres as a dumping ground for waste (greenhouse) gases, Southern Oregon Climate Action Now has endorsed this effort

For more information, visit oceraunited.org.