Restoring Respect 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 1500-year 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 – like the Great Lakes — belongs to the public.  And governments, like the State of Michigan, have a responsibility to protect public uses of these resources.

In the coming year, we will explicitly address public trust concerns on what we’re calling Public Trust Tuesday.  Today, we begin with a roundup of critical public trust issues in Michigan in 2018.

Let’s look on the bright side, rather than dwelling on past failures. In the coming year, state officials and legislators have several opportunities to full their responsibilities as trustees of public trust resources:


Line 5:  The twin pipelines crossing the Straits of Mackinac underwater are there only because, in 1954, the state granted the company now called Enbridge the privilege.  State government never relinquished its ownership, on behalf of the public, of these waters and submerged lands. 

In 2017, a stream of disclosures about negligence, poor pipeline stewardship, and concealment of critical information by Enbridge dramatized the risk to the public interest posed by Line 5.  The Attorney General and Governor have the opportunity to eliminate this risk by revoking the Enbridge easement and phasing out or shutting down Line 5.


Nestle: The multinational corporate giant in 2016 asked the state DEQ for an increase in its already excessive pumping of groundwater for bottling and sale.  This despite evidence that Nestle’s existing withdrawal is lowering the water levels of streams fed by this groundwater, and harming fish and fishing.  The DEQ has an opportunity to protect the public trust by denying Nestle’s permit request.


Aquaculture:  Proponents are seeking a state law authorizing the installation of factory fish farms in Great Lakes waters.  These operations, which generate large amount of fish feces and could undermine the genetics of public fisheries, do not belong in public waters.  Further, the private occupancy of public waters by fish farms and other structures is wholly inconsistent with the public trust doctrine. The Legislature has the opportunity to protect the public trust by rejecting the legislation.


These are only some of the public trust concerns at stake in Michigan and the Great Lakes this year.  FLOW will work to restore awareness of and respect for the public trust doctrine among Michigan officials, and help the public bring pressure on them to fulfill their responsibilities.


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