Reflections on Independence – Liberty, Water, and the Public Trust Doctrine

By Jim Olson

July is “Public Trust Month” at FLOW, a time to gather views and inspiration from people from all walks of life who live, use, enjoy, or depend on the waters of the Great Lakes Basin for life, recreation, and livelihood.

This is because FLOW’s mission is to assure that decisions and actions that affect the Great Lakes are undertaken in the framework of ancient principles, embedded in our law as deep as the Great Lakes and the soils beneath them. These principles, known as the public trust doctrine, recognize the duty of government as trustee to protect, and the rights of the public as beneficiaries to enjoy, these public trust waters and their paramount public nature and uses from one generation to the next.

On July 4, my wife Judy and I hosted a large family picnic at our house in Benzie County. After enjoying the food and multiple conversations going on at once, some of us, with pant legs rolled up above the knees, found ourselves wading in the Platte River with several grandchildren. Watching them totter and frolic in the fast current—their ages ranging from 3 to 23—I had this thought: Liberty includes the gift of freedom to enjoy public trust waters like the Platte River, here in Michigan, and the Great Lakes, and waters throughout the United States and beyond. The public trust in our water resources is a principle that protects and passes on this gift from one generation to the next.

The public trust doctrine is often traced from the Justinian Code 1,600 years ago: “By the law of Nature, these things are common to [humankind]: the air, running water, the sea, and consequently the shore of the sea.”  The doctrine reappeared in 1215 in that “Great Charter of Liberty,” the Magna Carta, to restore the custom and rights of the people to access to the rivers and sea for food and sustenance.

On July 4, 1976, the Declaration of Independence declared:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The U.S. Constitution was adopted and ratified between 1787 and 1788, and not long after, the Bill of Rights  in 1791 declared that no government—federal, state, or local—can deprive a person of the right to “life, liberty, and property” or “other rights [not listed] retained by the people.”

In 1821, in the first of a long line of decisions adopted in similar form as the common law of the people by the courts of every state, the Supreme Court of New Jersey nullified an attempt by a landowner to exclude the public from the seabeds, navigable waters, and their near shores because these waters and special lands were public common property held in a public trust for the benefit of all citizens of a state.

In 1892, the United States Supreme Court reaffirmed the public trust doctrine in the navigable waters, the soils under them, and the shoreline below the high water mark. An influential railroad company hoodwinked a compliant Illinois legislature into granting it almost one square mile of Lake Michigan for a private industrial complex. This didn’t sit well with Illinois residents, especially those who lived in Chicago, and the next session of the legislature repealed the grant.  The company, of course, notified the state that it was too late; they owned the bottomlands and waters of Lake Michigan.

The Supreme Court rejected the company’s claim, and in a landmark decision ruled that the grant to a private company or person was void because the special common public waters and lands owned and held by the states in public trust were “inalienable”! This means that no government can pass a law that deprives a citizen of the inalienable rights, as beneficiary of the public trust, to enjoy and use these waters and special trust lands for fishing, navigating, boating, swimming, bathing, and sustenance—drinking water and growing food.

Imagine that, an inalienable right derived from Roman law, the Magna Carta, and English common law came down to this country because of the “inalienable rights” covered by the Declaration of Independence and American Revolution, and that this “inalienable right” is protected by the public trust doctrine. It is a right that cannot be taken away or repealed, and it is protected by the rights to “life, liberty, and property” and the “other rights of the people” in our Constitution! 

Today, courts around the country are recognizing that the rights of citizens to an individual and indivisible right under the public trust doctrine fall within our “life, liberty, and property” protected by our Constitution.

Talk about a gift for all of us to celebrate during the afterglow of Independence Day and throughout FLOW’s “Public Trust Month” of July. This is one to be thankful for, exercise, and protect for ourselves, our children, grandchildren, and all future generations.

Jim Olson is FLOW’s founder and president. 

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