Having been born and raised in Mobile, I have fond memories of summer days spent playing in Dauphin Island’s surf, exploring Gaillard Island and walking the boardwalks over Mobile Bay.

Due to the far-seeing acts of pioneering environmental leaders and communities, these and other parts of Alabama’s coastal legacy have been protected and preserved, not just for future generations, but for the wildlife that depend on them for survival.

Recently, however, such legacies across the South have come under siege. Whether it’s the “red tide,” which has covered Florida’s Gulf Coast, or the general decline of coastal waterways, our penchant for diking, damming and otherwise polluting these resources is now coming back to haunt us.

Mobile Bay isn’t immune to these fates. Last month, the Alabama Department of Public Health prohibited shellfish harvesting and oyster growing near Portersville Bay due to concerns over bacteria levels. In prior years, it has banned those activities due to high arsenic and mercury levels. Data from state agencies and the EPA routinely rank Mobile Bay as one of the dirtiest watersheds in the country, treating it as “impaired” under the Clean Water Act.

Between industrial emissions, agricultural runoff and urban waste, the bay has borne the brunt of our collective belief that we can continue to use it without consequence.

There is good news, though.

Beginning about a decade ago, rural communities in Pennsylvania began to advance a new model for environmental protection. This model involves enacting local environmental laws that recognize ecosystems possess certain rights — like the right to exist and be healthy — which are legally enforceable by the residents of those communities.

In shaping this new model of protection, Pennsylvania communities looked to how past people’s movements confronted legal systems which regulated the use of human beings rather than protecting their rights. For instance, women were once treated as having only those rights given to them by their husbands. Enslaved African-Americans only had those rights given to them by slaveholders.

Similarly today, nature is protected only by our willingness to restrain ourselves. That restraint, as the state of Mobile Bay shows, is beginning to wear thin.

Over three dozen communities across the country have now adopted these “ecosystem rights” laws — including the city of Pittsburgh through a unanimous vote of the City Council. Closer to home, Florida communities are beginning to call for rights of the Everglades and the river systems feeding it. Some have even suggested that cities and towns relying on Mobile Bay should begin to adopt local laws that recognize rights of the bay.

Of course, the concept of ecosystems as something other than property — to be used at the whim of the property owner — has much deeper roots. Indigenous cultures, such as the Creek and Choctaw, have seen themselves as part of nature, not as its owners.

Indeed, the name “Alabama” itself is derived from an indigenous community. Perhaps it’s time we borrowed more than just the name.

Thomas Alan Linzey, Executive Director
Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund Inc.