skip to Main Content

A Voice for the Voiceless

When our advocacy and collaborative efforts fall short, CELP brings targeted litigation to protect the public interest in ensuring clean and abundant waters for all. To this day, the legacy of our founder Professor Ralph W. Johnson’s legal philosophy, strategy, and scholarship informs the way we work. His invaluable expertise and insight into the Public Trust Doctrine, especially, has provided the strong foundation from which CELP takes legal action.


The Public Trust Doctrine

By the law of nature, these things are common to all mankind—the air, runnin water, the sea, and consequently the shores of the sea.

The Justinian Institutes, Roman Civil Code written in the sixth century CE

Public trust doctrine is a legal principle establishing that certain natural and cultural resources are preserved for public use. Natural resources held in trust can include navigable waters, wildlife, or land. The public is considered the owner of the resources, and the government protects and maintains these resources for the benefit of the people.

In US law, traditionally, the public trust was applied to the use of navigable waters in commerce and fishing, but its definition was largely expanded after two landmark cases in California. The first, Marks v Whitney (1971), extended the public trust to include recreation and preservation of trust lands in their natural state. The second, National Audubon Society v Superior Court (1983) broadened the public trust even further to include fish, wildlife, and habitat.

Back To Top