Tag: law

Joe Sax, Legal Giant and Visionary, Leaves the Gift of the Public Trust Doctrine

For Professor Joseph Sax

  • “Of all the concepts known to America law, only the public trust doctrine seems to have the breadth and substantive content which might make it useful as a tool of general application for citizens seeking to develop a comprehensive approach to resource management problems.” – Joe Sax, The Public Trust Doctrine, 66 Mich. L. Rev. 473, 474 (1970).
  • “Any person…  may maintain an action in the circuit for the protection of the air, water, natural resources and the public trust therein from pollution, impairment, or destruction.” – Joe Sax, Codified as The Michigan Environmental Protection Act of 1970.
  • “To those for whom wilderness values… has never been of more than peripheral importance,  this book asks principally for tolerance…”… to the preservationists themselves, in whose ranks I include myself, the message is that the [public] parks are not self-justifying. Your vision is not necessarily one that will commend itself to the majority.  It rests on a set of moral and aesthetic attitudes whose force is not strengthened either by contemptuous disdain … or taking refuge in claims of ecological necessity. Tolerance is required on all sides, along with a certain modesty.” – Joe Sax, Mountains Without Handrails, pp. 108-109 (University of Michigan Press, 1980).
Professor Joe Sax (1936-2014)

Professor Joe Sax (1936-2014)

Joe Sax, father of environmental law citizen suits and the public trust doctrine and Michigan and California professor, passed away last week, leaving a legacy far beyond his 78 years. His wife Ellie Gettes Sax passed away this past December. His sense of justice, family, art, knowledge, wisdom, masterful writing, and passion will be sorely missed by his family, friends, colleagues, and the many students and fans who have had him in class or read his law review articles, essays and books.

But thank you to Joe for the legacy he left—writings that are so sound in research and reason and so visionary in real world application. Like the public trust doctrine from ancient times that he resurrected in the famous 1970 Michigan Law Review, parts of which are quoted above, his body of work will undoubtedly continue to teach students and lawyers how to protect water and the planet for generations to come.

My thoughts go to Joe Sax, his family, and colleagues, and the thousands of law students, lawyers and judges who admire or have been inspired (or jolted) by his work. He will be sorely missed by his family and friends close to him and those who knew him. Fortunately, the beacon of his work burns brightly, as it has done and will do.

I remember the first time I met him as Professor Sax when he spoke at the Michigan State University Union in 1972. I actually didn’t “meet” him that day, but heard him talk to the assembled group about a law (the Michigan Environmental Protection Act) that he had drafted and was signed into law by Governor Bill Milliken.

He spoke mostly about the idea behind it: that the water, watershed, and people who live or work there are all connected as a single natural system, and are collectively protected by this new law and by the public trust. How? Through rights, responsibility, and access (what lawyers refer to as “standing”) to courts to enforce these rights and duties and protect this natural system and trust from harm.

As a recent law graduate then working at the Michigan Supreme Court, I had seen a notice of his lecture posted on the Union bulletin board and wanted to know what it was about. I left the Union that day with one thing on my mind (like so many others, I’m sure): this was I wanted to do as a lawyer.

Little did I know that I’d be so fortunate, and Joe Sax so kind, to study under his personal supervision when I attended Michigan for my Masters in law. That he took me on was a huge gift, one I’ve wanted to return, like so many of us who have been inspired by him, in the day-to-day work that we do by applying and implementing the very values and principles he strived for and espoused so eloquently.

I treasure his trip to Traverse City a few years ago to deliver a keynote on water. I picked him on at the airport and he generously agreed to meet for dinner with Joan and Will Wolfe—friends of his and the citizen duo behind passage of the environmental citizen suit law in Michigan—and all of the lawyers, mostly young, at our firm. Even today they still talk about that evening.

Then there was his keynote address at the State Bar of Michigan Environmental Law Section’s 25th anniversary a few years back, when Joe traveled to East Lansing for another lecture. This time the focus was on accepting the reality of climate change and, as lawyers, beginning to envision pragmatic ways to prepare for the rising oceans and disappearance of habitat in flooded estuaries, wetlands and lowlands.

He wondered aloud how we as lawyers might start thinking about setting aside land use zones now for the new wetlands and sensitive habitats or spawning grounds that will be needed in the future as water levels rise along the shores of the oceans?  Or,  how should we as a society start to address the dropping water levels of the Great Lakes, preparing for the need of new wetlands in exposed lake or river beds?  Figuring out who will own these new exposed lakebeds if they become permanently dry upland property? Will these be considered private riparian or public trust lands or both?

I think about friends who had him as a professor or mentor, at Michigan and later at Berkeley, and can only imagine the stories they have, I’m sure quite similar to my own. Joe Sax wrote and taught eloquently—an artist within the linear framework of law-but he was also a tremendous influence and affected many, many people, in so many good ways.

He left a legacy of accomplishments, although that is not the way he would view them, given his respect, and I think love, for soundly researched, firmly reasoned, and artfully structured and worded writings on law, justice, the arts and culture. Rather, he left a legacy of contributions, giant contributions.  While not close to a list of his body of work, at the end of this post is a list of a few works that cannot go unmentioned.

So many other organizations, leaders, professors, and friends of Professor Sax could say or tell far more than I ever could. But we at FLOW are deeply grateful for Joe Sax and his life, and in mission we hope to fulfill in some pragmatic measured ways what he envisioned.

For in what is still the early morning of the 21st century, the world faces seemingly insurmountable threats, some that point toward global collapse if we continue on the selfish and material path that we now live as civilizations and economies. We have a choice between living in a world of top-heavy wealth of a few that pushes people and the earth’s commons to the point of collapse, or reasserting the fact that “no man (sic) is an island,” that we live in a commons and are tied by those commons to survive and live.

FLOW’s hope is to apply what Joe Sax’s envisioned for the public trust doctrine as an umbrella or benchmark that protects those parts of our world that are the commons, particularly the water that runs through all.  FLOW’s articulation and application of this vision is described in a recently published article:

A possible answer is the immediate adoption of a new narrative, with principles grounded in science, values, and policy, that view the systemic threats we face as part of the single connected hydrological whole, a commons governed by public trust principles. The public trust is necessary to solve these threats that directly impact traditional public trust resources like the Great Lakes and its tributary waters.  The most obvious whole is not a construct of the mind, but the one in which we live – the hydrosphere, basin, watershed, through which water flows, evaporates, transpires, is used, transferred, and is discharged in a continuous cycle.  Every arc of the water cycle flows through and effects and is affected by everything else, reminiscent of what Jacques Cousteau once said, “We forget that the water cycle and the life cycle are one.” All Aboard: Navigating the Course for Universal Adoption of the Public Trust Doctrine.

Professor Joe Sax, we re-dedicate our work to you and what you stand for.

Memorial Services for Joe and his family will be held Sunday, March 23, 2014, Congregation Emanu-El, San Francisco.

[Please note that the editorializing in the parenthesis in the list below are wholly mine and should not be attributed to Professor Sax. Better to read these selections yourself]:

  • Defending the Environment – A Strategy for Citizen Action (1972) (a ground-breaking book that called for legal standing and access to the courts for citizens and urged responsibility and duty for government and everyone to protect the natural bounty of this world).
  • The Public Trust Doctrine in Natural Resources Law: Effective Judicial Intervention  (a seminal landmark article that compiled and offered the public trust doctrines as a broad and deep approach to address the systemic threats to our most special places, parks, and common waters).
  • The Michigan Environmental Protection Act of 1970 (the first model and adopted citizen suit law to protect the air, water, natural resources and the public trust in those natural features and our common air and water).
  • Takings, Private Property and Public Rights, 81 Yale L. J. 149 (1971) ( some property, whether public or private, are so inextricably related to public health and welfare that protection of such lands and features preserves what is public without taking private property rights, where none can be said to have been truly expected in the first place).
  • The Michigan Environmental Protection Act of 1970: A Progress Report, 70 Mich L. Rev. 1003 (1972) (Joe Sax and Roger Connors published a thorough monitoring of cases and decisions under the new MEPA; Roger Connor was the first of several Professor Sax “protégés” who worked under him to help interpret and understand the facts, data, and law evolving under what was later labeled by the Michigan Supreme Court “the common law of environmental quality”).
  • Environmental Citizen Suits: Three Years Experience under the Michigan Environmental Protection Act, 4 Ecology L. Q. 1 (1974) (Joe DiMento published the second “report” on the MEPA with Joe Sax, this time fleshing out some of the political, statistical, and jurisprudential implications).
  • Michigan Environmental Protection Act in its Sixth Year, 53 J. Urban. L. 589 (1976, University of Detroit Law School) (Jeff published the next report, this time shaping the growing number of trial and appellate court decisions, upholding the constitutionality of the act, demanding high level of judicial review, and imposing duties on government to consider impacts and prevent and minimize environmental degradation).
  • Helpless Giants: National Parks and the Regulation of Private Land, pp. 108-109, 75 Mich L. Rev. 239 (1976) (Joe Sax had a passion for wilderness, particularly protecting the values of our national park system, and considered the authority of the National Park Service to protect those values from activities that impacted them adjacent or near the parks).
  • Mountains Without Handrails: Reflections on the National Parks (University of Michigan Press, 1980) (Joe Sax’s reasoned plea for preserving the values of wilderness and the National Parks through deep personal engagement in the parks to appreciate the “genius” of what energized the creation of the park in the first place).
  • William O. Douglas Award (for extraordinary legal achievement, Sierra Club, 1984).
  • Distinguished Water Attorney Award (Water Education Foundation, 2004).
  • The Limits of Private Rights in Public Waters, 19 Env’t’l Law J. 473 (1989). (Professor Sax pointed out that for 2,000 years water has been understood as public in the sense that it is within the crown or sovereign people, represented by government; and at the very least water has never been owned by anyone, and as such there is no right and should be no expectation of private ownership of water, merely use consistent with the larger public values represented by these common waters).
  • Playing Darts with Rembrandt (University of Michigan Press, 1999) (Here, Joe Sax goes beyond the boundaries of traditional thought, and in riveting short-story like tales of battles, scars and defacing or covering up great works of art and culture makes the case for limitations on the right to destroy or impair art, that is, unless you are the artist her/himself).
  • The Blue Planet Prize (Glass Foundation, 2007) (awarded to Joe Sax for his pioneering work and invention of the environmental citizen suit to democratize a government too much influenced by its own ends or the ends of those who influence it and protect to a degree the ecosystem on whom all depend).

I could go on, but the above selected titles are only illustrative of how deep his passion and love for beauty and the natural world and his sense of justice ran (and, through his legacy, will run). And these writings reveal how his modest but irrefutable strong force of reason and values overwhelmed (and will continue to overwhelm) or piqued his audience.

FLOW Staff to Issue Public Statement at Army Corps of Engineers Public Comment Forums on the Great Lakes Mississippi River Interbasin Study

Click here to view and download the full press release PDF

For immediate release
Contact: Allison Voglesong, Communication Designer
231 944-1568 or allison@flowforwater.org

FLOW Staff to Issue Public Statement at Army Corps of Engineers Public Comment Forums on the Great Lakes Mississippi River Interbasin Study

TRAVERSE CITY – The United States Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) public comment forums on the Great Lakes Mississippi River Interbasin Study (GLMRIS) report makes the fifth of nine stops in Traverse City, MI on Thursday, January 23, 2014. FLOW, a Traverse-City based nonprofit water policy and education center, has prepared written comments and will make public statements during today’s forum that seeks public input on the new GLMRIS report. The study enumerates eight plans for keeping invasive species, namely Asian Carp, out of the Great Lakes. FLOW encourages the ACE to implement plans that undertake complete hydrologic separation of the Great Lakes Basin and the Mississippi River Basin.

“We need strong Great Lakes policies that protect water quality and quantity, and ensure that invasive species never reach our common waters of the Great Lakes,” says FLOW Communication Designer Allison Voglesong. The present systems for keeping invasive Asian Carp out of the Great Lakes are a series of electrical barriers, but these alone are insufficient, and additional measures are needed urgently.

“To address this complex ecological and multi-jurisdictional problem, there must be a complete hydrologic separation between the Great Lakes Basin and the Mississippi River Basin,” says Voglesong. Cost estimates for ACE plans including complete hydrologic separation vary, upwards of $15 billion in some cases. “From an economic standpoint the Great Lakes support a $7 billion fishery and a $62 billion overall economy,” she says, “There is too much at risk, and the cost of inaction will be far greater than the investments considered here today.”

Voglesong outlines three statements and three questions for the ACE to consider:

  • The 25-year implementation timeframe is too long, and we urge research into a realistic but shorter timeframe;
  • The research in the GLMRIS study is thorough, but the public and our decision-makers need better guidance from the agency for prioritizing possible solutions;
  • We are proponents for plans that establish complete hydrologic separation for all five possible pathways.
  • Is it economically and logistically feasible to scale back portions of these plans that are outside of the scope of managing invasives, such as water treatment, sediment remediation, and flood mitigation?
  • And, are there risks with eliminating these components?
  • Could other plans for complete separation, like those released by GLC and the Cities Initiative, be substituted or reconciled with your complete separation plans to find an economically viable middle-ground?

Voglesong urges the long-term implications of the plan. She says, “Doubtless, there are incomparable, difficult tradeoffs involved in solving this problem. The bottom line, however, is that we must protect the delicate ecological balance of the Great Lakes from destructive invasive species because the waters of the Great Lakes Basin are our shared commons, and our legacy for generations to come.”

Canada’s Bill 6 Great Lakes Protection Act, the Public Trust, and Your Water Rights

Jim Olson, FLOW President

Jim Olson, FLOW President

This week I teamed up with Ralph Pentland, a leading Canadian water policy expert (see Pentland and Wood, Down the Drain, Greystone Books, 2013), and submitted to the Ontario Parliament comments on Bill 6, its proposed Great Lakes Protection Act. Bill 6 looks to the future by requiring policy and initiatives to protect Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, but does not declare or recognize the importance of protecting the public’s right to use these waters and the water they depend on for enjoyment.

FLOW has been working at several levels to make sure the Great Lakes are protected as a public trust – with the International Joint Commission, federal government, and the states. But Canada and its provinces are equally part of the Great Lakes Basin and community, and they, too, recognize the importance of the public right to boat, fish, and swim in the Great Lakes basin. As you may know, the U.S. Supreme Court and state courts have ruled for more than 100 years that the waters, shore, and bottomland of the Great Lakes and all connecting or tributary streams and waters are owned by the state and held in trust for all citizens of each state, as legal beneficiaries. This means the state must protect, and that others cannot impair, the public’s right to boat, fish, swim and enjoy these public trust waters and shores.

Canada’s Pentland and my joint comments on Bill 6 to Ontario legislators and leaders spell out the application of the public right to use these waters that is recognized by the provinces, and that these rights, like the public trust in the U.S., are held in trust by the government. On both sides of the border, these waters are held in trust, and government has an affirmative duty to account to the people as beneficiaries that the waters have been and will be protected. If governments or others violate this duty, citizens have a right to demand the violation is correct — like beach closings, nutrient run off and “dead zones,” and drops in water levels. Pentland and I urge Ontario to declare these waters a public trust and impose duties and rights to make sure the rights of all citizens, the legal beneficiaries of the trust, are honored from one generation to the next.

The full text of our comments are set forth below:
Click here to view the comments as a PDF

31 October, 2013

Submission Regarding Bill 6, Great Lakes Protection Act

Ralph Pentland1 and James Olson2

The preamble to Bill 6 states that “In the face of the pressures of population growth and development, and threats such as climate change and invasive species, three of Ontario’s four Great Lakes are in decline.”3

That is clearly an understatement. New toxic substances are showing up in fish and sediments. These include fire retardants, plasticizers, pharmaceuticals, and personal care products. Many of these pose a risk to fish, wildlife and people. Although the exact cause has not been definitively established, various species of Great Lakes fish now suffer from tumors and lesions, and their reproductive capacities are decreasing. Of the ten most valuable species in Lake Ontario, seven have almost totally vanished.

Non-native species are threatening the balance in biological systems and water chemistry, and climate change is contributing new challenges to the sustainability and health of the basin. In recent years, we have been witnessing biological deserts developing in some areas, a series of botulism outbreaks in fish and birds, and extensive algae blooms. An increasing proportion of these algae blooms are blue-green cyanobacteria, which when they break down release a variety of liver, skin and neurological toxins.4

We applaud Ontario for its environmental leadership for more than a century. It introduced the first nineteenth century public health Act, and was the first to manage water resources within the natural contours of river basins in the 1940s. Uniquely among provinces, Ontario enacted an Environmental Bill of Rights in 1993 which acknowledges that Ontarians “have a right to a healthy environment” and to “the means that it is ensured.”

In 2002, the Province passed the Safe Drinking Water Act, which tightened oversight of municipal utilities, and mandated water testing and reporting to provincial authorities. The Clean Water Act followed four years later. Both of these, along with existing legislation, such as the Ontario Water Resources Act (which among other things regulates municipal sewage discharge) received further updates in a suite of related amendments in 2009. And in 2010, the Water Opportunities and Water Conservation Act authorized a variety of measures, including mandatory plans for water sustainability.

The vision of Bill 6 to authorize policy initiatives, and if ever adopted implement the initiatives as benchmarks for governmental decision-making is laudatory. But, given the magnitude of the issues and the urgency for action to address the systematic threats to these waters, simply piling on more and more laws will not in and of itself accomplish the desired outcome. During the 20 years of legislative activism since enactment of the Environmental Bill of Rights in 1993, the Ontario Ministry of Environment lost 45 % of its budget, while overall government spending soared by 72% (in constant dollars). Coincidentally federal environmental capacity was also drastically curtailed over the same period. And not coincidentally, the decline in the health of the Great Lakes has accelerated over that same 20 year period.

After delivering his annual report to the Ontario legislature in November of 2011, Environment Commissioner Gordon Miller reminded reporters that “I have 30 years of experience and I’m nervous”. He pointed to a “culture of inaction and procrastination” in defence of water productive ecosystems, marked by a demonstrable decline in resources dedicated to protecting Ontario’s overtaxed landscape.5

Have we been making the right choices? Probably not. There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that well-designed and stringently enforced environmental regulation will yield economic benefits greater than their costs. As we let the quality, and in some instances the quantity of the Great Lakes and other provincial ecosystems decline, there is a very high probability that we are becoming both less wealthy and less healthy than we would have been if we had protected those ecosystems more rigorously.6

The proposed Great Lakes Protection Act has many good features. But, it could be both more effective and more beneficial if it were to include provisions designed to uphold the Bill of Rights guarantees of a “right to a healthy environment” and “the means that it is ensured.”

In enacting the Environmental Bill of Rights in 1993, the Province of Ontario essentially and quite appropriately accepted the fact that it has a fiduciary duty to preserve the essence of provincial environmental resources for the use and enjoyment of the entire populace into perpetuity. There can be no more important governmental responsibility than preserving the natural security supporting health, wealth and life itself.

The Ontario Bill of Rights commitments are not unlike the public trust doctrine as it has evolved in the United States and has been increasingly recognized in Canada. Public trust principles can be traced from Rome to the present, through both civil law systems, like those in France and Spain, and common law systems, like those in Canada and the United States. As a result, generally the waters of the Great Lakes are held in the public domain in the name of the Crown in Canada, and in the sovereign state in the United States, in trust for the benefit and welfare of its citizens.

Today, the courts in all eight Great Lakes states have recognized the public trust doctrine, either expressly by naming the Great Lakes and the connecting or tributary waters subject to a public trust, or though application of the public’s paramount right and use of public or navigable waters. More recently, the Canadian courts have begun to recognize the potential of public trust principles, and several Canadian water law and policy experts have urged the adoption of public trust principles by the courts or the provincial governments. And, while not labelled public trust, Canadian courts have consistently recognized that the Great Lakes are subject to a paramount right of the public to navigate, fish, boat and otherwise enjoy these waters. This means the governments hold the waters in trust to prevent a subordination or interference with this fundamental public right.

Under these principles, governments have a continuing duty to determine that there will be no significant impairment or harm to the flows, levels, quality and integrity of public trust waters, uses and ecosystems before they approve or deny a governmental private action. This duty requires the collection of data and information necessary for long-term planning sufficient to satisfy the solemn and perpetual trust responsibility, and affected interests and citizens as beneficiaries can institute administrative or judicial actions, as a last resort, to enforce public trust duties or apply public trust limitations that protect the integrity of the whole.7 If this duty is honoured by government and citizens, there will be instant consideration of the whole of the systemic threats facing the Great Lakes in every government decision that may impact these waters, their uses, and ecosystem. This would bring about instant accountability while the policy and initiatives called or by Bill 6 are developed and implemented.

Public trust (or public rights) principles could be introduced into Bill 6 by including:

  1. A general recognition of the interconnected or single hydrological relationship of the waters of the Ontario portion of the Great Lakes Basin with other portions of the Basin waters, including tributary groundwater and surface waters.
  2. A general recognition that these waters are held by the Crown in common and in public trust as recognized by decisions of the courts in Ontario and the Supreme Court of Canada.
  3. A recognition that, along with First Nation interests, each citizen has a right as a member of the public to use and enjoy the waters and the bed of the Great Lakes and connecting and tributary navigable waters for boating, swimming, navigation and other water dependent public needs.
  4. A provision that such public right to use and enjoy these waters shall not be subordinated to primary private purposes or otherwise materially interfered with or impaired.
  5. A provision that any initiatives, decisions and instruments made or proposed under this Act shall conform to these public rights in navigable waters.

Endnotes
1. Ralph Pentland is Acting Chair of the Canadian Water Issues Council at the University of Toronto. He resides in Ottawa, Ontario
2. James Olson is Chairman of FLOW U.S. (for the Love of Water). He resides in Traverse City, Michigan
3. Bill 6, Great Lakes Protection Act 2013
4. Ralph Pentland and Chris Wood, Down the Drain: How We Are Failing to Protect Our Water Resources, Greystone Books, 2013
5. Gord Miller, Engaging Solutions: Annual Report 2010/2011, November 2011
6. Chapters 7 and 8 of Down the Drain (see 4 above)
7. James Olson and Elizabeth Kirkwood, Submission to the International Joint Commission, Comments on the Lake Erie Ecosystem Integrity (LEEP) Report, Scientific Findings and Policy Recommendations to Reduce Nutrient Loadings and Harmful Algal Blooms