The Public Trust Doctrine, in general, declares that public trust lands, waters, and natural resources, such as beaches, navigable rivers, and wildlife, in a state are held by that state in trust for the benefit of the public. Although the exact scope of the public trust doctrine regarding which lands and uses are protected varies by state, in general the public may fully enjoy public trust lands, waters, and natural resources for a wide variety of recognized public uses. In Massachusetts, the doctrine has been the basis of a number of statutes passed to protect the state’s tidelands. In Oregon, it enabled legislation in the late 1960’s that protected public access to all of Oregon’s beaches.
The doctrine also sets limits on public and private rights. For example, while a waterfront landowner may build a dock to obtain access to water, he or she may not extend the dock into navigable waters in such a way that it would interfere with public use. The doctrine also establishes the responsibilities of individual states when managing public trust lands. For example, a state may not convey public trust lands if the conveyance will substantially impair the public’s use of trust lands and waters.
The Public Trust Doctrine can be a valuable tool to protect working waterfronts. When water-dependent uses, such as marinas or shipyards, face conversion to other non-water dependent uses, such as hotels or restaurants, it can mean the loss of access to public trust lands and waters. States, taking advantage of authority granted by the public trust doctrine, can enact policies in waterfront management plans that give preference to water-dependent uses and enhance waterfront access.
The Public Trust Doctrine is as complex as it is powerful. Fortunately, there are some comprehensive resources to help you learn more.