The Public Trust Doctrine: Will Courts Protect Natural Resources?

Feb 2, 2015

Recorded on Friday, January 30th, 2015

Air Date: Monday, February 2nd, 2015

Friday, January 30, 2015 from 12:05 to 1:20 p.m.
Downtown Athletic Club, 3rd Floor Ballroom

The public trust doctrine is a common law, that is, a court-created, principle. It gives government the right and duty to preserve and maintain natural and cultural resources for the benefit and use of the public, conflicting private property rights notwithstanding. Traceable to the Justinian Code of sixth century imperial Rome, the doctrine came to the United States by way of England. Historically, its scope was narrow, protecting for public use seashores, lakeshores, and their adjacent waters, and the waters of important rivers and streams. More recently, though, environmentalists, faced with the inaction of other branches of government, have petitioned courts to extend the doctrine to protect for the public such resources as forests, wildlife and its habitat, wetlands and the air.

Will courts grant these petitions? If so, how far will they go in shaping public policy regarding natural resources, policy that, in an ideal world, would be shaped by legislatures? Further, can effective judicial remedies be devised with respect to resources such as air, the quality of which can be degraded by jurisdictions beyond a specific court’s control? And, what will be the reaction of the public, the intended beneficiary, if a judicial remedy significantly and adversely impacts the economy and jobs?

This program’s speaker, Mary Wood, is well-qualified to address these questions. Mary is the Philip H. Knight Professor of Law and Faculty Director of the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Center at the University of Oregon School of Law. She has studied and written extensively about the public trust doctrine. Most recently, she authored the book titled “Nature’s Trust” and subtitled “Environmental Law for a New Ecological Age.” The book was published by the Cambridge University Press last year and explains how the public might use the public trust doctrine to protect its ecological rights.   

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