Tag: perspective

Public Trust Perspectives

byzantine-empire-public-land.-trusts

FLOW’s organizing principle is the public trust doctrine.  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, these 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 Public Trust Tuesday. 

This week, we are welcoming five graduate students from the University of Michigan who will be assisting FLOW in our new Blue Communities project.  The purpose of the initiative, which begins in the Grand Traverse Bay watershed, is to empower communities to instill the values of water stewardship in their policies and practices.  This grassroots, place-based program is based on the knowledge that water is precious to all, and its stewardship has the potential to unite communities in achieving environmental goals.

As they arrive on scene this week to get a lay of the land, we asked them for their perspective on the public trust.



Public trust is the principle that certain spaces and resources such as air and water are preserved for public use. In addition, governments have the obligation to prohibit any use that could harm these resources in order to protect the rights and benefits of current and future generations. This concept is becoming more important when it comes to water crisis and over-extraction of ecosystems. As an existing source of legal authority, public trust should be taken hold to prevent impairment of natural resources and related habitats as well as improve public awareness and water stewardship.

-Lingzi Liu: Landscape Architecture

What having the public trust doctrine in place means to me is that there is an established set of rules/guidelines that determine if something can be owned by one person or if it belongs to everyone (aka a common good). It is through this doctrine that the Great Lakes have been made accessible to all. It is through this doctrine that the government is given the responsibility of maintaining and preserving these common goods. It is also through this doctrine that we as citizens and people of the commons have the ability and duty to make sure the government is upholding their responsibility. It is through this public trust doctrine that a tragedy of the commons can be avoided.

-Kaitlin Vapenik: Environmental Informatics with Data Science Certificate

“By the law of nature these things are common to all mankind—the air, running water, the sea, and consequently the shores of the sea.” Public spaces and resources are owned and shared by the public. The concept is to protect public resources for the public (owner). Public trust is the principle that could be used to govern all decisions, rights and duties of the use of common resources, like waters and shorelines. Public trust waters should be used for public purposes (like drinking water, navigation, recreational uses, etc.), instead of being controlled or transferred to private interests for private purposes. And the proposed uses cannot harm waters, influence the quality and quantity of public trust waters, or protected public uses as well.

-Kangu Yu: Landscape Architecture

The public trust doctrine states that the public has the right to use certain resources, such as water. Water belongs to everyone, and the government has been given the responsibility to protect this resource for the people. Therefore, the government must ensure that current and proposed uses do not violate the principles of the public trust, and that no one individual or group is disproportionately causing harm to or interfering with other’s rights to use water resources. The multitude of stressors threatening water resources today suggests that there is a need to protect this resource that belongs to all of us.

-Nancy Ye: Environmental Toxicology with an emphasis on Aquatic Toxicology

To me, the public trust doctrine is the idea that creation ought to be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of their place in life. The beauty of creation often takes my breath away, and many of my fondest memories involve utilizing natural resources like lakes, rivers and beaches. The natural world is here for everyone’s reasonable use and enjoyment and should not be the pleasure of a few. While privatization is often good in many sectors and encourages healthy competition, the destruction, alienation or diversion of natural resources through private ownership often produces detrimental effects for the environment at-large, oftentimes destroying that which was exclusively sought after in the first place. The public trust doctrine allows the citizens of our country to protect precious, natural resources from degradation so that these resources can be enjoyed by anyone, including future generations. In a world of instant gratification and abundant, self-centered pleasures, the public trust doctrine calls on us to resist our own selfish desires and to put the good of the community first.

-Adam Arend:  Environmental Policy and Planning