Public Trust Tuesday:  A Big Win for the Public Trust

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FLOW’s organizing principle is the public trust doctrine.  What sounds like an exotic concept is quite simple.  This centuries-old principle of common law holds that there are some resources, like water and submerged lands, that by their nature cannot be privately owned.  Rather, this commons – including the Great Lakes — belongs to the public.  And governments, like the State of Michigan, have a responsibility to protect public uses of these resources.  We explicitly address public trust concerns on what we’re calling Public Trust Tuesday.


Score a big win for the public trust doctrine.

In what can be termed literally a landmark decision, the Indiana Supreme Court on February 14 ruled that the state’s public trust rights to the Lake Michigan shore extend to the ordinary high-water mark.

FLOW founder Jim Olson called the decision “exciting” and said it was an even bigger affirmation of the public trust doctrine than a 2005 Michigan Supreme Court ruling because it carefully explained the basis of sovereign public trust ownership by the state.

The ruling came in a case brought by landowners who sued the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, seeking exclusive access to all land up to the water’s edge. Public trust advocates argued that Indiana received land below the ordinary high-water mark at statehood under the public trust doctrine, and that an act of the legislature is required to deed such land to a private party.

But Olson said the Court should also have articulated a list of traditional and incidental public trust uses, like swimming, bathing, and staging, sitting or other uses that are incidental and necessary to those traditional uses that are protected by the public trust doctrine. “In finding ‘at a minimum’ walking the beach below the ordinary high-water mark is protected, the Court exercised restraint and left the scope of public trust uses unclear until enumerated by the legislature,” he said.

“The public trust is a dynamic and flexible doctrine, dependent on changing public needs and uses of public trust lands or waters,” Olson said. “Certainly, walking and fishing were predominant in earlier centuries, but the use of our public shores and beaches below the ordinary high-water mark for access and their public use and enjoyment has encompassed swimming, canoeing, kayaking, surfing, kite boarding, and similar uses. These uses for safety and convenience necessarily include staging, sitting, and even sunbathing incident to those traditionally protected uses.

The “public trust doctrine is a court-made doctrine common law doctrine, so the Court was well within its traditional judicial powers to enumerate those uses rather than defer to the legislature,” he added.


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