This bill would prohibit granting the Great Salt Lake its own rights

Environmental advocates say that granting the lake ‘legal personhood’ is a path toward saving it.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The receding shoreline near the Great Salt Lake Marina, on Friday, December 29, 2023. A lawmaker proposed a bill that would prevent the Great Salt Lake from being legally recognized as a person, which would grant it the same rights that individuals have under Utah law.

U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney said in 2012 that “corporations are people.” Are Utah’s lands and waters people, too?

Environmental advocates say yes; the dying Great Salt Lake has an inherent right to exist, just like people do.

Utah Rep. Walt Brooks, R-St. George, has introduced a bill to head off that kind of thinking. HB249 would prohibit “a governmental entity from granting or recognizing legal personhood in certain categories of nonhumans,” including bodies of water, land, artificial intelligence, weather, plants and animals.

Brooks said that his constituents are concerned about other nations and states granting “legal personhood” to nonhumans. Legal personhood is defined in the bill as “the legal rights and obligations of an individual under the laws of this state.”

One such example is New Zealand’s Te Urewera Act of 2014, which de-designated a forested area in the country from national park status and instead empowered the area with “a legal identity” to protect its natural and cultural value.

“This legislation would block a proven path to restoration that at least should be considered,” said Nan Seymour, a member of the organization Save Our Great Salt Lake, to the members of the House Business and Labor Committee on Tuesday. “We’re in grave danger and we must leave all options on the table until we are safe.”

Some states have tried to grant natural rights to nature as a form of environmental protection.

In 2013, residents of Mora County, New Mexico, passed an ordinance establishing a bill of rights for the county’s water and land with the intent of preventing “damage related to the extraction of oil, natural gas, or other hydrocarbons.” It was later thrown out by a federal judge for violating the rights of corporations.

In a successful application, the Yurok Tribe — the largest Native American tribe in California — granted legal personhood to the Klamath River in 2019. This move, the first of its kind, allows the tribe to take legal action against polluters on behalf of the river.

“This proposed bill would end any discussion of what it means to give the [Great Salt Lake] a voice in the legal system,” said Sadie Braddock, a master’s student at Utah State University.

According to the Utah People & Environment poll conducted by Utah State University in 2023, 60% of Utahns support granting the Great Salt Lake its own rights, Braddock reported.

The members of the House Business and Labor Committee responded to these comments that they are committed to saving the Great Salt Lake, but that granting it personhood was not appropriate.

“This bill wasn’t intended about the Great Salt Lake at all when it first came up,” Brooks said. “It was just the sheer fact that state after state and all over the world, we’re seeing people abuse the situation of personhood to use it as a weapon.”

The bill passed out of the committee with a 13-1 vote, with Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, opposing. It now heads to the House floor.