Public Trust Doctrine Definition and Legal Meaning

On this page, you'll find the legal definition and meaning of Public Trust Doctrine, written in plain English, along with examples of how it is used.

What is Public Trust Doctrine?

(n) Public trust doctrine is the authority bestowed on the government to hold, use, sale or otherwise transact any property submerged under its navigable waters, for the public benefit.

History and Meaning of Public Trust Doctrine

Public trust doctrine is a principle of law that dates far back to ancient Roman law. It is based on the understanding that certain lands and waters are held in trust by the government for the use and enjoyment of the public. In the United States, the public trust doctrine became more formalized in the 19th century as the Supreme Court recognized it as a fundamental principle of American law.

The doctrine holds that the government has a duty to protect and preserve certain natural resources, such as navigable waters, shorelines, wetlands, and wildlife, for the benefit of the public. This means that the government cannot simply sell or transfer these resources to private individuals or companies for their own use and profit.

Examples of Public Trust Doctrine

  1. A state government cannot grant permission to a private company to build a marina on public land that is submerged under navigable waters.
  2. A city government cannot allow a private developer to build on a public beach that is accessible to the public.
  3. A federal agency cannot issue a permit to a mining company to extract minerals from federally-owned lands that are protected under the public trust doctrine.
  4. A state agency cannot authorize a logging company to harvest trees in a state park that is held in trust for the public.
  5. A tribal government cannot allow a private individual to fish in a river that runs through tribal land, if the river is held in trust for the benefit of the public.

Legal Terms Similar to Public Trust Doctrine

  1. Sovereign immunity - the idea that the government is immune from being sued without its consent.
  2. Eminent domain - the power of the government to take private property for public use, with just compensation.
  3. Conservation easement - a legal agreement between a landowner and a government agency or nonprofit organization to permanently protect land from development or other uses that would harm its conservation values.