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The People’s Right to a Clean Environment

May 12, 2021 12:00 AM

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​If you are a Pennsylvanian, our state Constitution gives us the right to clean air and water, and to the preservation of our natural resources.

Not only for us, but for the generations that will follow us. There are only a handful of other states where this is the case.

The Environmental Rights Amendment was drafted, ratified by the people, and received final unanimous approval by the state legislature 50 years ago this month.

Reflect on that -- every legislator, despite party affiliation, voted for it.

The amendment says:

“The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic, and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.”

Anniversaries are always a good time to look back, and forward, and remind ourselves what our Constitution ensures for us.

Article 1, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution

Water, river, park, trees ,outdoors, nature, bench, shoreline
Kury Point, at Shikellamy State Park, is named in honor of Franklin Kury.

The First Article of the Pennsylvania Constitution is The Declaration of the People’s Rights -- among them life and liberty, and of pursuing their own happiness.

Half a century ago, the country was awakened to the devastating impacts of past practices related to the environment.

The first Earth Day launched the movement to create laws and programs that make sure we have clean water to drink, and protections for our air, land, and wildlife.

At that same time, Franklin Kury was working to address the impacts that industries like coal and steel had in Pennsylvania, especially on rivers and streams.

As a member of the House of Representatives in 1967, Kury drafted and introduced the legislation that led to the establishment of Section 27 of the Declaration of the People’s Rights.

Fifty years ago, on May 18, 1971, Pennsylvanians went to the polls and three out of four of them voted for the change, ratifying Article 1, Section 27.

What followed were major statutes and regulations protecting the air, land, and water from degradation in Pennsylvania.

DCNR as Trustee of the People’s Environmental Rights

Stream, water, people, outdoors, nature

Franklin Kury was a powerful voice declaring the people’s right to a clean environment; and for requiring government to be stewards of parks and other public lands in trust for the people.

The second part of the amendment relates to who takes care of your environmental rights.

It placed a duty on Pennsylvania government as trustee of the public natural resources.

DCNR’s work is steeped in history, but in its current structure, the agency is young, not even existing at the time of the constitutional amendment.

In 1995, DCNR was created to be a cabinet-level advocate for public natural resources. 

The Conservation and Natural Resources Act, Act 18 (PDF), declared that “Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are to be conserved and maintained for the use and benefit of all its citizens as guaranteed by section 27 of Article I of the Constitution of Pennsylvania.”

As DCNR’s enabling statute, it states that the primary mission of DCNR will be to serve as advocate for our state parks, forests, rivers, trails, greenways, and community recreation and heritage conservation programs to provide more focused management of the commonwealth’s recreation and natural and river environments.

Acting as trustee of these rights and natural resources guides our work every day.

When managing the public lands (because of our trustee duties), the foundation for our decision making -- for things such as assessing value to non-conforming uses like pipelines and utilities, large events, contracts, policies, competing uses (really in every decision we make) -- is our responsibility to the people’s rights.

For All People, Generations Yet to Come

kayaks, people, water, lake, nature, outdoors

As trustee, Article 1, Section 2, outlines that our stewardship responsibilities should serve everyone, and are perpetual.

Our current work to respond to environmental challenges and make a better future includes:

  • Managing our parks and forests so they are sustainable and protected for the future and investing in their maintenance and infrastructure.
  • Addressing climate change for a resilient Pennsylvania.
  • Intentional action to ensure diversity, equity, and inclusion so that our public lands are welcoming to all, that our services and programs are accessible to all, and that we have a workforce that reflects the rich diversity of Pennsylvania.
  • Providing conservation education opportunities to make sure that Pennsylvania school children learn about our conservation history, about climate change, and achieve environmental literacy.

Learn More and Celebrate the Environmental Rights Amendment


There are several ways to learn more about Article 1, Section 27, taking place this month.

WITF Documentary and Panel Discussion: On Tuesday, May 18, at 7:00 P.M., DCNR Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn will join Franklin Kury, WITF, and the Pennsylvania Parks & Forests Foundation for a free virtual documentary screening and panel discussion in celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the state’s Environmental Rights Amendment.

Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art Exhibit Celebrating 50 Years of Environmental Rights: The Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art in Dauphin County is hosting a special exhibit to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Pennsylvania’s Environmental Rights Amendment to the state constitution until mid-August.

This special exhibit includes DCNR, and shares examples of the work being done to conserve and enhance the public resources across the commonwealth.

There is an open house and reception on Saturday, May 15, with former Sen. Franklin Kury, the author of the amendment.

Pennsylvania Parks & Forests Foundation Year Long Observation: The Pennsylvania Parks & Forests Foundation invites the public to participate in a different engagement activity each month in 2021 to show support for environmental conservation and public lands.

In May, you are invited to submit a piece of visual art on the topic of “what does preservation of the scenic value” mean to you?

Along with the monthly art and writing submissions, now through Sunday, August 1, 2021, people can submit to a song contest.

View the complete list of ways to engage on the PPFF website and be sure to follow #PAEnviroRights50 to find more ways to engage with and celebrate this landmark piece of legislation.

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