Public Trust Doctrine


Public Trust Doctrine is a foundational principle under environmental jurisprudence. According to our principle, aspects of our natural heritage are not mere possessions but are instead held in a sacred trust by the government for the collective welfare. 1 The principle is deeply rooted in common law and shaped the legal landscape for the preservation of our vital resources. 2

Public Trust Doctrine has its roots reaching back to the pages of Roman antiquity. The concept gained significance within the folds of English common law. 3 Essentially, this doctrine asserts that certain resources, such as watery expanses, coastlines, and submerged territories, rest in the hands of the government, serving as a fiduciary for the public good. The idea is to ensure the continuity of these resources for the present and future generations. 4

Historical Background

Public Trust Doctrine traces its origins to the Justinian Code of Roman law. Acknowledging the public's right to navigate tidal waters and fish, found ground in English common law, which asserted the Crown's duty to hold certain resources in trust. 5 In the United States, the doctrine gained renewed vitality, leaving an enduring mark on environmental jurisprudence. 6 In environmental law, Public Trust Doctrine remains a stalwart guardian, balancing public rights and government custodianship.

Key Elements

Fiduciary Duty of Government

The government has an obligation to function as a trustee by safeguarding public resources. This fiduciary role necessitates that a balance be established between advancing economic interests, development of commerce and industry, while ensuring the conservation of our natural resources. 7

Balancing Economic Interests with Environmental Protection

The challenge lies in harmonizing economic pursuits with environmental preservation. This complex balancing act calls for decisions that not only uphold the public's right to access and utilize resources but also mitigate adverse ecological repercussions. The doctrine, in essence, stands as a guiding compass, urging policymakers to consider the far-reaching consequences of their decisions on resource management. 8


The doctrine, traditionally focused on navigable waters, shorelines, and submerged lands, has extended its reach to include other resources over time. This includes air and wildlife, reflecting the importance of preserving ecosystems and biodiversity. 9 Modern day legal scholars and environmental advocates call for a more expansive interpretation of the Public Trust Doctrine. They advocate for it to include rights such as a stable climate and access to untainted air. This evolution essentially focuses on the effect of natural systems on human well-being. 10

Protecting Resources

  • Water bodies
    Public Trust Doctrine recognizes water bodies are indispensable components held in trusteeship for the wider public. Government is responsible for overseeing water sources, ensuring not only fair and equal access but also safeguarding these water bodies against pollution and maintaining ecological well-being. It guides the principles shaping policies that regulate water usage, advocate for conservation practices, and confront issues like contamination and excessive extraction.
  • Land
    The doctrine emphasizes the obligation of governments to shield public trust lands. It underscores the promotion of sustainable land-use practices, prevention of unauthorized development, and delineation of areas earmarked for conservation. Through including the principles of Public Trust Doctrine into land-use planning, nations can establish the much-needed balance between human development and preservation of ecologically sensitive zones.


Conflicts between Centre and State

Natural resources are to be shared amongst all. The challenges emerge when the centre asserts dominion over resources traditionally governed by state laws. This discord necessitates a nuanced and sophisticated approach to resolution, ensuring not only the coherence of the doctrine but also the efficacious management of vital resources. 11

Uncertain Application of the Law

Trans-jurisdictional issues are a common challenge in all fields of law and environmental law is no exception. The complexity intensifies when resources, such as migratory species or air quality, transcend the boundaries defined by individual states. Addressing these issues requires collaborative effort between the centre and the state. The task involves developing comprehensive frameworks that not only bridge these gaps but also steadfastly uphold the foundational principles of the Public Trust Doctrine. 12

Case Studies

M.C. Mehta v. Kamal Nath 13

Addressing the pollution of the Ganges River, a lifeline for millions, the Public Trust Doctrine was invoked. The Supreme Court of India decreed that the government, acting as trustee, must shield and enhance the environment for the public good. This ruling crystallized the notion that the government is not merely a proprietor but a custodian of natural resources, instilling accountability for environmental conservation.

Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum v. Union of India 14

This case broadened the scope of the Public Trust Doctrine to include air and water quality. The court, decreeing the right to a wholesome environment as intrinsic to the right to life, acknowledged the expansive application of the doctrine. This landmark decision resonated in subsequent cases addressing air and water pollution, imprinting a lasting impact.

International Application

  1. Principles Across Borders
    The principles inherent in the Public Trust Doctrine resonate across countries, each molding them to fit their unique legal and environmental landscapes. Nations such as the United States, India, and South Africa have woven elements of the doctrine into their legal frameworks, acknowledging the global significance of judicious natural resource governance. Scrutinizing the distinctive approaches of these countries unveils a nuanced comprehension of how the doctrine is applied in varied settings.
  2. Different Approaches
    An in-depth comparative analysis of how diverse countries operationalize the Public Trust Doctrine unfolds the adaptability of this legal paradigm. Some nations might underscore stringent governmental oversight, while others may embrace a more cooperative approach, involving stakeholders from diverse sectors. Grasping these divergences offers valuable insights into the doctrine's flexibility and efficacy on a worldwide scale.
  3. Collaborative Agreements and Alliances
    Recognizing that environmental challenges transcend borders, numerous countries partake in many-handed agreements and alliances to collectively champion the principles of the Public Trust Doctrine. International collaborations, exemplified by the Paris Agreement on climate change, exemplify countries committing to shared objectives, pooling resources and expertise to tackle global environmental issues. These agreements frequently underscore the significance of preserving natural resources for the collective benefit of humanity. 15
  4. Mutual Obligation
    The Public Trust Doctrine nurtures a sense of mutual obligation among nations, acknowledging that the well-being of the planet necessitates joint endeavours. In the face of interconnected environmental challenges such as biodiversity loss and pollution, the doctrine emerges as a unifying influence. By advocating for shared responsibility, nations can collaboratively strive for sustainable development, recognizing the intrinsic value of natural resources and the imperative for cooperative solutions. 16


In conclusion, the Public Trust Doctrine stands as the forefront guardian ensuring the persistence of vital resources for the collective good. The historical origins, fundamental principles, diverse applications, associated challenges, and the ever-evolving legal interpretations establishes its significance in environmental law.

It the responsibility for all of us to seek the vigorous implementation of the Public Trust Doctrine. Sustained awareness, legal advocacy, and public involvement are the need of the hour to harmonize economic necessities with the demand for environmental preservation. Only through a unified dedication to the tenets of the Public Trust Doctrine can we effectively safeguard our natural legacy for the current generation and those yet to come.

1 Joseph L. Sax, “The Public Trust Doctrine in Natural Resource Law: Effective Judicial Intervention,” 68 Michigan Law Review 471–566 (1970).
2 Harrison C. Dunning, “The Public Trust Doctrine in Natural Resources Law and Management: A Symposium,” 14 U.C. Davis Law Review 181 (1980).
3 David Takacs, “The Public Trust Doctrine, Environmental Human Rights, and the Future of Private Property,” 16 New York University Environmental Law Journal 711 (2008).
4 Raphael D. Sagarin and Mary Turnipseed, “The Public Trust Doctrine: Where Ecology Meets Natural Resources Management,” 37 Annual Review of Environment and Resources 473–96 (2012).
5 Joseph D. Kearney and Thomas W. Merrill, “The Origins of the American Public Trust Doctrine: What Really Happened in Illinois Central,” 71 University of Chicago Law Review 799 (2004).
6 Illinois Central R. Co. v. Illinois, (1892) 146 U.S. 387
7 Kenneth Kilbert, “The Public Trust Doctrine and the Great Lakes Shores,” 58 Cleveland State Law Review (2012).
8 Ibid.
9 John C. Dernbach, “The Role of Trust Law Principles in Defining Public Trust Duties for Natural Resources,” 54 University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform 77 (2020).
10 Gordon Gauchat, “Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere,” 77 American Sociological Review 167–87 (2012).
11 James L. Huffman, “Why Liberating the Public Trust Doctrine Is Bad for the Public,” 45 Environmental Law 337–77 (2015).
12 James R. Rasband, “The Public Trust Doctrine: A Tragedy of the Common Law,” 77 Texas Law Review 1335 (1998).
13 M.C. Mehta v. Kamal Nath MANU/SC/0416/2000.
14 Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum v. Union of India MANU/SC/0686/1996.
15 Nicholas A. Robinson, “The Public Trust Doctrine in the 21st Century,” 10 George Washington Journal of Energy and Environmental Law 83 (2019).
16 Ibid.
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