One Man's Clever Idea to Fight Frackers and Save His Organic Farm
Cleghorn filing the easement at the Jefferson County Courthouse in Brookville, PA.
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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.