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The Public Trust Doctrine

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It has long been recognized through numerous case decisions in Anglo-American law that man may exercise a guardianship over the environment and that our national natural resources are to be held in trust for the full benefit, use, and enjoyment of the citizens of the United States. The judicially enforceable right that holds natural resources in trust, not only for the people of this generation but for future generations as well, is embodied in the trust doctrine. A citizen has a right to assert an interest in the public lands of the United States as common property held in trust for use by all of the people. The citizen’s real interest in the public property is the value of his right to use the property, and this gives him standing in court. While a variety of other legal theories may be employed, it has been suggested that “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 legal approach to resource management problems.”1 In those instances where private citizens have concluded that the trustee has not diligently protected a natural resource, they have taken the initiative and have sued the governmental authorities charged with protecting the public interest. If the government has not adequately regulated a private party, the private party may be the defendant. In other situations a state or federal agency may be the plaintiff in a suit against a local government.


  • Private Property
  • Public Land
  • Strip Mining
  • Private Party
  • Real Estate Company

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“There are things which belong to no one, and the use of which is common to all.”

Geer v. Connecticut, 161 U.S. at 526 (1896)

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References and Suggested Readings

  • Sax, J. (1970), The Public Trust Doctrine in natural resource law: Effective judicial intervention, MichiganL. Rev. 68: 471–566.

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  • Wyche, J. (1979), Tidelands and the public trust: An application for South Carolina, Ecology Law Quarterly7: 137–170.

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  • Yannocone, V., Cohen, B., and Davison, S. (1972), Environmental Rights and Remedies, Vol. 1, Lawyers Co-Operative Pub. Co., Rochester, N.Y., Chap. 2, pp. 11–60.

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© 1983 Plenum Press, New York

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Tank, R.W. (1983). The Public Trust Doctrine. In: Legal Aspects of Geology. Springer, Boston, MA.

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  • Publisher Name: Springer, Boston, MA

  • Print ISBN: 978-1-4684-4378-3

  • Online ISBN: 978-1-4684-4376-9

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