Policy Update

North Carolina Introduces The Rights of the Haw River Ecosystem Act

June 12, 2023



NCEL Point of Contact

Kate Burgess
Conservation Program Manager



On April 18, North Carolina Representative Pricey Harrison introduced H.B.795, “The Rights of the Haw River Ecosystem River Act.” The Act includes provisions that cover both the rights of nature itself, and the rights of the people to a healthy environment. 

  • The State of Play: In 2023, two states are considering legislation to ensure the rights of nature and at least 12 are considering legislation to ensure the rights to nature, also called Green Amendments.

Key Provisions in The Rights of the Haw River Ecosystem River Act

If enacted, North Carolina’s H.B.795 would advance a healthy Haw River ecosystem by ensuring: 

  • Rights of Nature: The Haw River ecosystem possesses the right to naturally exist, flourish, regenerate, and evolve. 
  • Rights to Nature: All North Carolina residents possess the right to a flourishing and healthy Haw River ecosystem, as well as the rights to file an action and/or intervene in litigation to protect these rights and the rights of the Haw River ecosystem.  
  • Enforcement: The State Attorney General is authorized to enforce and defend both the rights of and the rights to a healthy Haw River ecosystem.
  • Indigenous Rights: The new provisions shall not infringe upon any of the rights of Indigenous peoples residing in North Carolina. 
  • Damage Accountability: Businesses or other entities that are found to have damaged the Haw River ecosystem are responsible for paying restoration costs, in addition to civil penalties.

Rights of Nature vs. the Rights to Nature Explained

The rights of nature and the rights to nature appear very similar; however, there are some key differences. These rights are not mutually exclusive; recognizing both sets of rights significantly strengthens their ability to protect environmental health and human-nature relationships. 

Rights of Nature: Recognizes and protects the rights of ecosystems to a healthy and safe existence. Representatives of the ecosystem, which may include constituents, may take legal action if an ecosystem’s rights are violated (e.g. pollution or other environmental degradation). Rights of nature laws advance environmental policy to meet traditional Indigenous knowledge and cutting-edge conventional science, both of which see ecosystems as vitally important and inextricably interconnected systems. 

When properly implemented (e.g. amending a state constitution), rights of nature offer broader protections to ecosystems by ensuring protection even if there is no imminent threat to humanity. Representatives of ecosystems could also require that environmental damage be stopped and reversed as part of a case’s legal remedy.

Rights to Nature (recognizes a human right): Recognizes and protects human rights to a healthy and safe environment. The state generally becomes the trustee of these rights held by its residents and possesses the responsibility for ensuring that environmental decisions are prioritized in the decision-making process. 

  • Rights to nature can be codified via Green Amendments, which have been adopted by three states and introduced in 12 states this year.

Bill Sponsors

North Carolina H.B.795 is sponsored by NCEL Board Member Representative Pricey Harrison, Representative John Autry, and Representative Marcia Morey.