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Lawmakers looking to close the door on ‘legal personhood’ for the Great Salt Lake

A couple walks past a rusted and beached bouy on the dry lakebed of the Great Salt Lake near Rozel Point, April 16, 2023.
Jim Hill
A couple walks past a rusted and beached bouy on the dry lakebed of the Great Salt Lake near Rozel Point, April 16, 2023.

Under U.S. law, corporations and other non-human entities can hold legal “personhood.” Meaning they can own property, enter contracts and be sued. It’s a pathway environmental advocates say could be used to help protect western features like the Colorado River and Great Salt Lake.

But one Utah lawmaker wants to bar bodies of water, including Great Salt Lake, from establishing those personhood rights.

HB0249, otherwise known as Utah Legal Personhood Amendments, would prohibit certain entities –– including bodies of water, weather, Artificial Intelligence and non-human animals –– from using legal personhood status as an argument in litigation. The state currently faces such a lawsuit with environmental advocacy groups claiming Utah is not doing enough to save Great Salt Lake.

“We value animals. We value our rivers and streams, wetlands, whatever it may be, our lakes, and there's ways that we can preserve them and go forward,” said Rep. Walt Brooks, the Republican sponsor. “But trying to mix the idea that it's actually a human person is not appropriate.”

Brooks told the Utah House Business and Labor Committee that it’s the wrong tool because the body of water isn’t human, and that “attorneys and environmentalists” can use legal personhood as a “mechanism to get some ground” in a lawsuit.

He pointed to the Komi Memem River in Brazil, which was granted legal personhood after Indigenous people in the Amazon argued the body of water, which was on the verge of collapse, was vital to their livelihood.

“So if you harm it, it can sue you. But who’s the guardians of this river?” Brooks asked. “They're usually some groups that are using this as a weapon to try to get their agenda forward.”

Environmental advocates disagreed with Brooks’s stance. Every public comment during the hearing was in opposition to the bill.

“Why would we take a possible solution off the table when this existential crisis is not yet adequately addressed?” said poet and activist Nan Seymour.

Commenters also brought up Indigenous views on the rights of nature and the responsibility Utah has toward future generations. Others mentioned that without a clear exception for corporations, the bill could face constitutional challenges.

“I don't want to live in a place where corporations can have legal personhood, but living ecosystems cannot,” said Denise Cartwright, co-founder of the advocacy group Save Our Great Salt Lake. “The rights of nature movement is growing exactly because the law, as it exists, has failed to protect our planet and its ecosystems.”

Public comment failed to sway the committee. The bill passed with Democratic Rep. Brian King as the only no vote. It now heads to the full House for debate.

Caroline is the Assistant News Director
Saige is a politics reporter and co-host of KUER's State Street politics podcast
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