Tag: Skip Pruss

The Public Trust Doctrine in Action


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. Today’s thoughts are from FLOW’s board chair, Skip Pruss.

“We must connect the dots between climate change, water scarcity, energy shortages, global health, food security and women’s empowerment. Solutions to one problem must be solutions for all.”                                                                                                                            Ban Ki-moon

It’s time that we better manage our natural resources by broadly applying the Public Trust Doctrine. 

Our water, air, and other public resources are facing multiple threats and unprecedented challenges. The threats to our environment are complex and systemic, and current government efforts are inadequate and ineffective.  The public trust doctrine provides government with a framework to identify, comprehend, and address environmental threats at their root cause. 

Last week at World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, political and business leaders, social activists, and philanthropy came together to assess the current state of the world and prioritize problems and solutions.   

To inform the discussions of the attending global elite and set the agenda, a series of reports issued including Harnessing the Fourth Industrial Revolution for Life on Land and The Global Risk Report 2018.  The former indicates that a survey of earth systems science finds that stresses on the planet’s environmental systems have worsened considerably in the last 25 years.  The Global Risk Report – which has measured and categorized global risk annually for the last 13 years – found that environmental challenges from water scarcity, climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution of air, soil and water now pose the greatest global dangers in terms of both potential catastrophic impacts and imminent threats.

The WEF warns that governments thus far are ill-equipped to respond to complex interactions and systemic threats that can quickly cascade into calamitous and costly events. 

In the Great Lakes Region, the WEF’s warnings are validated by new emerging science:

A broader approach to address these growing systemic threats is needed; one that focuses on the public interest and on protecting human health and the environment as a fundamental guiding principle.

The public trust doctrine starts with the proposition that the natural resources on which we all depend – our water, air, forests and wildlife – are essential to our wellbeing and must be protected from impairment and degradation.

Our nation’s highest courts have long embraced the public trust doctrine as an overarching legal principle.  In a landmark case involving Lake Michigan, the United States Supreme Court spoke unequivocally to government’s fundamental duty to protect public trust resources:

“The State can no more abdicate its trust over property in which the whole people are interested like navigable waters and the soils beneath them…than it can abdicate its police powers in the administration of justice and the preservation of peace.”

The Michigan Supreme Court has found that the doctrine establishes a “high, solemn and perpetual duty” of proactive environmental stewardship.  The protections afforded by the public trust doctrine are recognized by Michigan’s Constitution, which states: “The conservation and development of the natural resources of the state are hereby declared to be of paramount public concern in the interest of the health, safety and general welfare of the people.”  Wisconsin’s highest court has found that the public trust doctrine requires the law-making body to act in all cases where action is necessary, not only to preserve the trust but to promote it,” and has applied the doctrine to protect public rights in sailing, rowing, canoeing, bathing, fishing, hunting, skating, and “scenic beauty.”  California’s highest court has found that the doctrine demands that the best science must inform government’s responsibility to protect public trust resources and that prior governmental decisions must even be reexamined in light of new scientific knowledge if such information indicates public trust interests are affected.

The Public Trust Doctrine at Work

Our nation’s courts have been clear and unambiguous, stating repeatedly that the public trust doctrine creates an affirmative legal duty to protect public resources from degradation and impairment.  So how might government apply the public trust doctrine to address complex and challenging environmental threats?

The doctrine operates as a shield to prevent activities that impair the public’s interest in public trust resources or conveys public rights in public trust resources to private parties.  But beyond that, the public trust doctrine also empowers local, state and national governments to proactively manage and supervise activities that threaten public resources. 

It provides, for instance, government with legal authority to require septic systems to be inspected and repaired if they are failing.  If fish or aquatic resources are threatened by harmful wastes or chemicals, government is empowered to stop the pollution at its source.  When it was found in the 1980’s that the operation of the Ludington Pump Storage Facility killed large numbers of fish in Lake Michigan, the then attorney general asked the courts to require measures that abated the fish mortality.  The Michigan Court of Appeals stated,Because the fish resources destroyed by the plant are held in trust by the state for the people, the state is empowered to bring a civil action to protect those resources.”

Similarly, Attorney General Bill Schuette could bring and action to close Line 5, the 65-year-old oil pipeline crossing the Straights of Mackinaw, because it presents a known catastrophic risk to public trust resources and waters of the Great Lakes.

The public trust doctrine could be used to address climate change by requiring utilities to transition to available, low-cost, zero-carbon energy resources.  Because clean energy is now widely acknowledged to be the energy source of the future, there is no good reason to allow the continued loading of acid gases, heavy metals, and carbon pollution into our Great Lakes, rivers and streams.

Skip Pruss

The public trust doctrine will become increasingly important as issues of water availability, water quality, and water scarcity become more frequent and more contentious.  The doctrine could provide a means of directly countering the present actions of the federal government to dismantle environmental laws and regulations.  The doctrine can also enable communities to maintain high standards for the protection of natural resources and environmental values while being proactive in preventing problems before they arise. 

The public trust doctrine is uniquely compelling as a means to address large-scale complex problems.  With so much at stake, a broad application of the public trust doctrine is needed now.

I Live Near Lake Michigan

I live near Lake Michigan.

I am among the lucky ones, as is my neighbor, Tom Shaver, who has said more than once that he pinches himself as a reminder not to take living next to Lake Michigan for granted. Like most of my neighbors, Tom has a deep appreciation for the awesome grandeur and natural majesty of Lake Michigan; its morning brilliance, stunning sunsets, ever-changing moods, and the sounds and fury of its winds and storms.

I savor the opportunity to introduce strangers to the Great Lakes – folks from outside the Midwest or from other countries who have never had occasion to experience the Lakes up close. They are invariably impressed, if not astonished. “How come I can’t see the other side?” is a common question. “You mean there is no salt?” asked an exchange student from Montenegro.

We are so fortunate as Michiganders to live in the heart of these extraordinary fresh water seas. The Lakes are a phenomenal geologic anomaly and a magnificent natural endowment. Sculpted by ancient retreating glaciers that left the largest interconnected body of fresh surface water in the world, the Great Lakes are globally unique. Harboring 84 percent of all fresh surface water in North America, the Lakes provide direct health, economic, environmental and ecological services to 40 million people.

As science measures the lifecycles of freshwater bodies, the waters of the Great Lakes are largely considered both young and pristine, but the geologic timeline only obscures the many immediate challenges facing the Great Lakes.

The Lakes’ complex, dynamic ecosystems endure a growing list of human impacts. Nutrient loadings from industrial farming propagate algae, stormwater overflows discharge human waste, and elevated water temperatures transform ecosystems – all injurious impacts exacerbated by climate change. New science reveals that fish and other aquatic life are affected by recently discovered, yet ubiquitous, pharmaceutical chemicals and microplastics still concentrating in our waters. Invasive species, shoreline development, and non-point source pollution present intractable, long-term challenges. Commodification and privatization of the waters of the Great Lakes present serious future risks.

The threats to the Great Lakes are manifold, diverse and systemic. Meeting these threats requires concerted action by informed citizens and responsible government operating with common purpose and employing common strategies. It requires citizens and government policy-makers who understand that the Great Lakes – their waters, bottomlands and shorelines – belong to all of us, and that government has a clear legal duty to protect and preserve the Great Lakes for the benefit of the citizens they serve.

FLOW’s mission is to safeguard the Great Lakes through strategic application of the Public Trust Doctrine. The PTD establishes three principles that are deeply embedded in our jurisprudence:

  1. The Great Lakes are owned by the people;
  2. The people’s ownership interest is held in a legal trust for the benefit of the people;
  3. Government has a “solemn and perpetual” fiduciary responsibility to protect and preserve the trust for future generations.

With public ownership comes special duties of stewardship for both citizens and government – duties that are reciprocal and interdependent: Citizens have the responsibility of protecting and preserving this natural endowment for future generations through vigilance, holding government accountable, and demanding sound policy. Government has a corresponding duty as trustee and fiduciary to ensure that the public’s interest in the Great Lakes is not injured, diminished, or alienated.

The Public Trust Doctrine is a foundational principle that has long informed the development of our environmental laws. It is also a paradigm that can and should be extended to imminent societal challenges like water scarcity and climate change.

Skip Pruss, FLOW Chair

FLOW’s unique contribution is to use the Public Trust Doctrine to cultivate principles of good stewardship by increasing public awareness and knowledge of the Great Lakes, by nourishing the mutual inclination of citizens and government to protect the waters of the Great Lakes, and by undertaking strategic actions based upon the doctrine to advance model policies that yield real world solutions.

Protecting and preserving the integrity of our water resources is our common bond and shared responsibility to future generations.

FLOW Board Member Calls HB 4205 Contender for Worst Michigan Environmental Bill of 21st Century

The Michigan legislature has introduced what is a sure contender for the worst Michigan environmental bill of the 21st century.  The bill, HB 4205, would prohibit all state agencies from promulgating any administrative rule that is more stringent than an applicable federal standard.  With the federal government actively seeking to dismantle historic environmental protections by lowering or eliminating a whole host of environmental standards, HB 4205 could result in irreparable and irrevocable harm to Michigan’s priceless natural resource heritage.

We cannot assign the responsibility to protect Michigan’s natural resources to the federal government.  We cannot surrender the safeguarding of Michigan’s natural resources to an administration that is contemptuous of efforts to protect land and water resources and boasts of its eagerness to eviscerate existing environmental rules. 

The Trump Administration’s pledge to repeal two administrative rules for every rule promulgated and its promise to use the Congressional Review Act to void environmental regulations are indicators of the potential harm HB 4205 could create.  The Trump Administration’s roll back of 23 environmental rules in its first 100 days is harm already incurred.

Michigan’s natural resources are globally unique, requiring vigilant protection and stewardship.  Our Great Lakes hold 20 percent of the world’s supply of fresh surface waters and harbor distinctive, specialized watersheds.  Our shoreline of 3,288 miles is by far the longest freshwater coastline in the United States, shaping coastal dunes that are singularly unique natural features.  Science affirms that our inland lakes, rivers, streams, and wetlands are an integrated, interconnected, mutually dependent hydrologic system providing immeasurable services and benefits to all citizens.

In all, Michigan’s natural resources are magnificent, unparalleled and sublime – a natural endowment demanding extraordinary legislative safeguarding.  HB 4205 is antithetical to Michigan’s values, laws and environmental legacy.

HB 4205 has eleven legislative co-sponsors.  Their support of this bill is irreconcilable with their constitutional responsibilities.  Michigan’s Constitution explicitly defines the primary duty legislators have to protect Michigan’s natural resources.  Article 4, Section 52 of Michigan’s Constitution states:

The conservation and development of the natural resources of the state are hereby declared to be of paramount public concern in the interest of the health, safety and general welfare of the people.  The legislature shall provide for the protection of the air, water and other natural resources of the state from pollution, impairment and destruction.

Complementing this constitutional mandate is the Public Trust Doctrine, embodying a set of foundational principles, long recognized by law, that require proper stewardship of Great Lakes resources.  The doctrine creates a fiduciary responsibility of stewardship on the part of government for the preservation of these resources for the benefit of the public.  Described in Michigan jurisprudence as a “high, solemn and perpetual duty,” the Public Trust Doctrine creates a foundational, unifying, coherent legal framework for defining and prescribing rights, obligations, duties and responsibilities for protecting public resources that government – and the legislators behind HB 4205 – cannot ignore. 

Please encourage your friends and family to contact the eleven co-sponsors of HB 4205: 

Triston Cole – (primary), Jim Runestad, Aaron Miller, Kathy Crawford, Michele Hoitenga, Steven Johnson, Peter Lucido, Beau LaFave, Tom Barrett, Sue Allor, John Reilly.

Stanley “Skip” Pruss co-founded 5 Lakes Energy in 2010, specializing in energy policy and clean energy system development.