When J. Stephen Cleghorn realized that Paradise Gardens and Farm, his certified-organic farm in Pennsylvania that sits above the Marcellus Shale formation, was at risk of being “fracked” for shale gas extraction, he knew he had to act. But he did more than just act against fracking when he became the first private property owner in the United States to use a deed easement recognizing the Rights of Nature to ban all activities that would do systemic harm to the ecosystem both above and deep below the surface of his farm.
“We wanted to preserve organic agriculture on these 50 acres to be sure, but also wanted to employ this recognition of Rights of Nature to deter any activity that would threaten those rights at the surface in the deep biosphere below this farm,” said Cleghorn.
Subsurface rights, sometimes called the mineral estate or ‘split’ estate, are often leased or sold to fracking companies in order to drill and dump millions of gallons of toxins below private property and ground water. In most states, these mineral “rights” were sold as long ago as 100 years or more, affording residents no say over what happens under their feet — and sometimes even on their property.
Cleghorn describes himself and his late wife, Dr. Lucinda Hart Gonzalez, as environmentally conscious, although they didn’t leave the city to take up farming with the intention of making a huge statement. His wife wanted to be a cheese maker and Cleghorn wanted to farm again after a short experience he had as a young adult. Together they thought that, while they might not be able to change the world, on their 50 acres they could make a positive contribution, farming as true stewards of the land, be part of a vibrant local food system and community, and reduce their carbon footprint. They set out to transition the farm to a local, organic, sustainable farm and hoped it would be a place to inspire and train future generations of farmers.
When Lucinda passed away in 2011, Cleghorn decided to use the easement to memorialize Lucinda’s legacy of very difficult work by which she and Cleghorn built a viable and thriving organic farm. He named the easement after her and enacted it on the first anniversary of her passing, November 14, 2012. With THE DR. LUCINDA HART-GONZÁLEZ CONSERVATION EASEMENT, Cleghorn sees himself as living the change the world needs and setting an example of working in partnership with Nature. That could change the world, he hopes, as the Rights of Nature are asserted, fully recognized, and protected under the law. He hopes that this easement will inspire other individuals to also take a stand for Nature and the future of the planet.
“This easement is not only about about preserving land for organic agriculture; it also speaks to a paradigm shift that is needed in our thinking so that we recognize that we are part of nature, not lords over it. Our long history is catching up with us. We’re either going to turn around our thinking and behavior, or we are going to leave a wasteland for future generations,” said Cleghorn.
Cleghorn accepts that the easement could devalue his property because it restricts the use of the land, but he believes that defending Nature’s rights is more important. Since it is attached to the deed, even when the deed changes hands, the new owners will have to comply with its terms.
“The groundbreaking idea of affirming the Rights of Nature is that this property is not so much longitudes and latitudes divided up into commodities. It’s first of all Earth, Nature, and it is indivisible,” said Cleghorn.
Cleghorn says he no longer recognizes Pennsylvania state laws that speak of supposed surface and subsurface “rights” to the land. “The state’s practice of splitting a part of Nature into who owns the surface versus who owns the subsurface, as well as considering each surveyed property as only ‘private’ property without respect to its origins within and connection to Nature as a whole, those are ‘rights’ I don’t recognize anymore. What we’re trying to do is make the gas companies come into court and argue against the rights of Nature , to make them argue that their industrial activity they call “fracking” gets to threaten those living systems by which all of life is sustained. We don’t think they will want to do that. The easement is one of a number of steps I’m willing to take to hold them off.”
It isn’t only individuals that can take a stand, and are taking a stand, in this way. Cities, townships, and municipalities are adopting community bills of rights that put their right to a clean ecosystem and the Rights of Nature into law. Pittsburgh has banned fracking within its city limits on such a basis. These local ordinances display a paradigm shift in our culture towards recognizing Nature’s rights and asserting our community rights. If the government won’t protect Nature, it’s time that others follow Cleghorn’s example and take action, as individuals or in our communities, to protect the world we live in.
Anyone interested in discussing a similar easement for their land should contact Shannon Biggs at Global Exchange, or the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF). CELDF helped Cleghorn write his easement and is a signatory to it, standing ready to defend the easement in court if that becomes necessary. Stephen Cleghorn is also an active boardmember of the Stop The Frack Attack Network.