The Role of Trust Law Principles in Defining Public Trust Duties for Natural Resources

71 Pages Posted: 20 Apr 2020 Last revised: 27 Jan 2021

See all articles by John C. Dernbach

John C. Dernbach

Widener University - Commonwealth Law School

Date Written: April 6, 2020


Public trusts for natural resources incorporate both limits and duties on governments in their stewardship of those natural resources. They exist in every state in the United States—in constitutional provisions, statutes, and in common law. Yet the law recognizing public trusts for natural resources may contain only the most basic provisions—often just a sentence or two. The purpose and terms of these public trusts certainly answer some questions about the limits and duties of trustees, but they do not answer all questions. When questions arise that the body of law creating or recognizing a public trust for natural resources does not fully answer, trustees, lawyers, and courts often look to trust law for help. In fact, they have been doing so for more than a century, including in the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1892 public trust decision in Illinois Central Railroad Co. v Illinois. In this sense, trust law provides a set of background or underlying principles for interpreting and applying public trusts.

Using cases from around the country, this Article sets out a four-step methodology for determining when and how to use trust law principles to help interpret public trusts. This methodology can be applied in any case involving the use of trust principles to help interpret any particular public trust. This Article also explains that the relevant trust law includes general trust principles, private trust law priciples, and charitable trust law principles, and should not be limited to private trust law.

This Article uses a 2019 Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court decision, Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Fund v. Commonwealth, as a case study. The case applies Article I, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania constitution, which requires that public natural resources be conserved and maintained for the benefit of present and future generations. In that case, the court used an interpretation of private trust law to decide that the state could spend some bonus and rental payment money from oil and gas leasing on state forest and park land, which is constitutional public trust property, for nontrust purposes. This Article applies the four-part methodology to the case, explains general trust law and charitable trust law principles that the Commonwealth Court did not address, and argues that use of these principles better fits the constitutional public trust. It concludes that the money from bonus and rental payments should be spent entirely for the purposes of the trust.

This Article is intended to draw attention to both the potential value of trust law principles and also to their potential danger in the interpretation and application of public trust laws for natural resources. Trust law has the potential to enhance the protectiveness of public trusts by imposing various fiduciary duties on trustees. It also has the potential to undermine public trusts, particularly through rules requiring that trust assets be financially productive. To vindicate public trusts for natural resources, environmental and natural resources lawyers need to become better trust lawyers.

Keywords: Pennsylvania Supreme Court; Robinson Township; Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation; constitutional environmental law; environment; environmental law; public trust; private trust; charitable trust; Article I Section 27; Pennsylvania constitution; Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court

JEL Classification: K00, K10, K32, Q00, Q01, Q10, Q2, Q3, Q4

Suggested Citation

Dernbach, John C., The Role of Trust Law Principles in Defining Public Trust Duties for Natural Resources (April 6, 2020). University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform, Vol. 54, 2020, Widener Law Commonwealth Research Paper, Available at SSRN:

John C. Dernbach (Contact Author)

Widener University - Commonwealth Law School ( email )

3800 Vartan Way
Harrisburg, PA 17110-9380
United States

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