The Right of Passage

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After more than 30 years of working on environmental policy, I moved to within a few hundred feet of one of the Great Lakes.  Given the opportunity to stroll along the shore as often as I wanted, I suddenly realized I didn’t know what I could legally do when the water’s edge traversed private property.  I only knew the courts had been taking up disputes regarding this issue.

One local I consulted said you could walk the first 10 feet of the beach.  Another said you had to keep one foot in the water at all times.  I knew I couldn’t assume anything.

Fortunately, Jim Olson was available.

FLOW’s founder and president is one of the nation’s leading authorities on the public trust doctrine, the tenet of common law that holds that our Great Lakes, their submerged lands and their shores are publicly owned — and that government has a responsibility to act as our trustee to protect them.

Jim has set forth the state of that doctrine as it applies to Michigan’s Great Lakes shores.  Simply put, the Michigan Supreme Court has upheld the right of the public to traverse the beach up to the ordinary high water mark.  No private property owner can exclude the public from that strip of public land.

Dave Dempsey, FLOW Senior Advisor

With that access comes responsibility.  Not just the respect for our great waters and shores that should always apply, but also respect for shoreline private property owners.  Shoreline access is not a license to litter, make noise, or otherwise disrupt the private property owner’s enjoyment of his or her rights.

With that knowledge, I have trod the shores of the Great Lake I live near, savoring the sounds of swishing water and the panorama of sky and inland sea.  It’s a sacred gift.  And the public trust doctrine protects it.

Read our beach walker’s guide, and enjoy your Great Lakes shoreline.


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