Grace Gibson-Snyder, 19, is suing the state of Montana for degrading the natural environment. (Photo: Robin Loznak; Courtesy of Our Children’s Trust)

Is a Clean Environment A Constitutional Right? This Lawsuit in Montana May Set a Precedent

Grace Gibson-Snyder is one of 16 young people suing the state of Montana over climate change.


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Grace Gibson-Snyder’s summer break from college this year will be full of the usual: practicing her kayak roll in the Clark Fork River. Backyard campfires with friends. Hiking the forested hills near her house. Except, of course, in mid-June, when the rising sophomore plans to hop into her dad’s Prius and make the two-hour drive from her hometown of Missoula to the Montana state capital of Helena. There, after huddling with her lawyers, she will take the stand in a historic lawsuit against her home state.

The Backstory: Held v. State of Montana

Gibson-Snyder is one of 16 youth plaintiffs suing Montana over climate change in the case Held v. State of Montana: specifically, the state’s active promotion of fossil fuel interests, which they assert deprives them of their constitutional rights. “The climate crisis is degrading and depleting Montana’s unique and precious environment and natural resources, which the Youth Plaintiffs depend on for their safety and survival,” reads the lawsuit, which a team of lawyers from Our Children’s Trust, Western Environmental Law Center, and a Montana law firm filed on the group’s behalf in March 2020. “Although Defendants know that the Youth Plaintiffs are living under dangerous climactic conditions that create an unreasonable risk of harm, they continue to act affirmatively to exacerbate the climate crisis.” The complaint challenges parts of Montana’s state energy policy, which promote fossil fuel development, and the Climate Change Exception in the 1971 Montana Environmental Policy Act, which prohibits officials conducting environmental reviews from considering impacts that stretch beyond Montana’s borders (as carbon emissions do).

When a district court judge in 2021 brushed aside the state’s motion to dismiss the case and allowed it to advance to trial, Held v. State of Montana hit a crucial milestone. Though other groups of young people have filed similar climate lawsuits against states and the federal government, this is the first one that will see its day in court. That success hinges on a key section of the Montana constitution, which guarantees the right to “a clean and healthful environment.” Only six states have similar provisions; Montana is the only one in the West.

Why Gibson-Snyder Joined the Climate Fight

Suing her home state might be a drastic move for a 19-year-old, but for Gibson-Snyder, it was the logical outlet for an environmental passion with deep roots. Like many kids lucky enough to live in a mountain town, she grew up enjoying the outdoors. Hiking and mountain biking trails lace the foothills ringing Missoula, and deep, grizzly-filled wildernesses are an easy day trip away. Gibson-Snyder spent most birthdays celebrating with her family at Yellowstone National Park, and her high school graduation bash with a group of friends involved a bike ride up Going-to-the-Sun Road and hiking the trails of Glacier National Park.

“It’s part of my family’s tradition to be in Montana and be outdoors,” she says, noting that she’s the great-great-great-granddaughter of a settler who traveled the Bozeman Trail in 1866 to build a home near Virginia City, not far from where she grew up herself. “My whole family are hunters and fishers. I’ve been so fortunate to grow up with this amazing access to the outdoors. It’s so close to my heart, and it’s so important to me to try to protect it.”

Climate change is no abstract, faraway threat for Gibson-Snyder’s generation. These young people have experienced it as an obvious and persistent force. At the start of her freshman year in high school, smoke from a nearby wildfire—a natural phenomenon of the West, but supercharged by a warming climate—derailed her soccer season. “We had a lot of practices and some games canceled,” she says. “It’s so unpleasant to try to play soccer in the smoke. It settles in your lungs. It’s like breathing tar. Your nose, your mouth, and your eyes get itchy. It’s to the point of being dangerous because smoke gets so dense in Missoula. I was aware that it was climate change.” Even her graduation trip to Glacier carried reminders of loss. After a 10-mile hike into the backcountry, Gibson-Snyder and her friends stared at a glacier in rapid decline. “Seeing the changes happening in front of my eyes—it was painful,” she remembers.

By then, Gibson-Snyder was already an environmental activist. At 13, after attending a teen leadership forum that encouraged attendees to develop service projects in their own communities, she launched a campaign to get rid of single-use plastic containers in Missoula’s fast-casual restaurants called BYO. After two years of meeting with restaurant owners and health experts to figure out how to incorporate reusable containers without violating public health policies, she’d built up momentum and support—until spring 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic shut the program down. “It’s a valuable idea,” she says now. “I would love to go back there at some point.”

Gibson-Snyder also served as the president of her high school’s environmental club, which led her to the Held v. State of Montana case. A guest speaker gave a presentation to the club—Gibson-Snyder doesn’t remember her name, or even what she was talking about—and mentioned a lawsuit in the works that needed young plaintiffs to sign on. “I was like, ‘That would be me,’” Gibson-Snyder says. “It was a really, really lucky turn of events for me. I had been doing some local environmental work, so to have this opportunity to learn about Montana as a whole region and more policy oriented, at a slightly larger scale that was still so close to home both literally and emotionally, was just a perfect opportunity.”

Adding her name to the lawsuit as a 16-year-old (the other 15 plaintiffs ranged from ages two to 18 at filing) would carry emotional weight in ways Gibson-Snyder didn’t fully anticipate. “I’m empowered in a way I wasn’t before to protect Montana,” she says. “One of the things I’m very grateful for is to have the support on our case, from Our Children’s Trust and from people all over the country and the world. It means emotional support that I didn’t know I needed in this line of work. It’s so emotionally challenging to be working to protect something you care about so much.”

But the case has also stirred up plenty of frustration and anger for her. When the Montana government attempted to dismiss the case, a spokesman for Attorney General Austin Knudson essentially called the young plaintiffs pawns to an out-of-state “authoritarian climate agenda.” “To me, it’s so evident that the whole point of government is to protect its citizens,” Gibson-Snyder says. “To see them, in my perception, actively disregarding that duty and ignoring the needs of their citizens…in favor of maintaining the tradition of fossil fuel dependence is agonizing.There’s definitely this sense of betrayal.”

Courtroom Activism for Climate Change

This June, when Held v. State of Montana is finally set for trial, Gibson-Snyder will take the stand to describe how climate change has been and is affecting her life. She hopes to convince the court to issue declaratory relief—which would mean ruling Montana’s energy policies unconstitutional. Gibson-Snyder believes such a ruling would “result in a transition away from the active promotion of fossil fuels.”

The case could resonate far beyond Montana’s borders. “It shows a type of action that people can take that’s different from protests or lobbying,” she says. “It demonstrates to the wider community how many ways there are of fighting for our constitutional rights and to combat climate change. I hope that it can be inspirational, to say the least, and motivate people to act.”

No matter what happens in court, Gibson-Snyder plans to make tackling the climate crisis her career. “I decided long before I got involved with Our Children’s Trust that I was going to be involved in climate work my whole life,” she says. Whether that means working within the system, as a politician, or outside of it, for a non-governmental organization, she’s not sure. She expects to start with a major in global affairs, concentrating in environmental policy. “I have no plans, in short, but I have a lot of hopes and dreams,” she says. “I’ve wanted to be President for a really long time—we’ll see about that.”

Lead Photo: Robin Loznak; Courtesy of Our Children’s Trust