The Public Trust Doctrine in the Shadow of State Environmental Rights Laws: A Case Study

33 Pages Posted: 5 Jun 2015

Date Written: June 2, 2015


This Article looks at the relationship between state environmental rights statutes and the common law public trust doctrine. In addressing this issue, it focuses on the state of Minnesota, where, in the early 1970s, the state legislature enacted a far-reaching environmental rights statute, the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act (MERA), that served to codify many public trust principles. Beginning in the early 1970s and for the next forty years, litigants in Minnesota that might otherwise have brought common law public trust doctrine claims for environmental protection purposes instead channeled that litigation through MERA. As a result, Minnesota courts have rarely been asked to interpret or use the common law public trust doctrine at all in the context of environmental protection. And, more importantly, they did not have an opportunity to use and develop the doctrine during the time the environmental protection movement was at its height in the 1970s and early 1980s. Instead, the lyrical language many courts used in public trust doctrine cases in other states during that era to protect natural resources and expand the scope of the doctrine is found, in Minnesota, in MERA cases, not in public trust doctrine cases. This Article explores the implications of the underuse of the common law public trust doctrine in Minnesota by focusing on a 2012 case, White Bear Lake Restoration Association v. Department of Natural Resources, which is the first case to begin a new conversation on the common law public trust doctrine in the state — one that never took place in the 1970s. This case involves traditional public trust resources — a lake and a lakebed — as well as efforts by private citizens to compel the state to protect those resources for present and future generations, thus coming squarely within the purview of MERA and even the most narrow reading of the public trust doctrine. The state argued in part that MERA had replaced the common law public trust doctrine in Minnesota and that the doctrine on its own could not be used for environmental protection purposes, citing the lack of any relevant public trust doctrine cases. While the district court rejected these contentions, the arguments of the parties and the court’s analysis sheds light on the important relationship between the common law and state legislation in the context of public trust resources and environmental protection.

Keywords: public trust doctrine, environmental law, White Bear Lake, Minnesota Environmental Rights Act, groundwater wells, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, natural resources, public trust resources, public trust principles

Suggested Citation

Klass, Alexandra B., The Public Trust Doctrine in the Shadow of State Environmental Rights Laws: A Case Study (June 2, 2015). 45 Environmental Law 431 (2015), Minnesota Legal Studies Research Paper No. 15-15, Available at SSRN:

Alexandra B. Klass (Contact Author)

University of Michigan Law School ( email )

625 South State Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1215
United States

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