My children and I recently celebrated the season by watching a wonderful Nutcracker ballet production at the Interlochen Arts Academy. Reading the back of the playbill, I was amazed to learn that this extraordinary music and ballet – now an American classic – was conceived one hundred and twenty-five years ago in the winter of 1892. The premiere of the Nutcracker Ballet performed in St. Petersburg, Russia, however, was not an instant success.
In fact, it was not until the late 1960s that the Nutcracker was embraced as a beloved American classic performed by countless ballet companies, primarily during the Christmas season. The melodies of Tchaikovsky resonated so deeply in me, drawing me into Clara’s enchanted world. And I remember thinking how few things are as powerful and evocative as music.
So what does Tchaikovsky’s ballet have to do with public trust law in America? Good question. It may seem like an odd connection but it’s not, because 125 years ago marks the seminal Supreme Court decision – Illinois Central Railroad v. Illinois – that established U.S. states as trustees over public trust waters and bottomlands for the benefit of citizens in perpetuity. One hundred and twenty-five years ago, the public trust doctrine became the law of the land. After nearly thirty years of controversy, the Supreme Court affirmatively nullified the deed the Illinois legislature had granted the Illinois Central Railroad. As a result, the public gained back a quarter-square mile of the downtown waterfront of Chicago and understood that they could hold their state governments accountable for protecting the paramount interests of the public waters.
The importance of this legal decision cannot be underscored. If the Supreme Court had not ruled in favor of the public and asserted the inalienable nature of public trust waters and bottomlands, Chicago’s downtown waterfront would have been privately owned, and there would be no Millennium Park.
One hundred and twenty-five years is a long time. And yet, I reflect on how timeless and powerful Tchaikovsky’s music and ballet remains. What if the public’s understanding of public trust law had been similarly embraced? What if states like Michigan upheld their public trust duties and enforced easements in public trust waters to prevent a private oil company from threatening our public waters? What if more citizens knew that their state leaders – governors, attorney generals, and agencies – were required by law to protect the paramount interests of navigable waters and tributaries? And what if more citizens demanded public trust protections of our greatest natural resource – water? Just imagine how powerful a stewardship tool we would have today. Let’s remember the gift the Supreme Court gave us 125 years ago and bring it back to life for the sake of the Lakes and our children’s future.