As we move forward with a new and hopefully ocean-friendly administration, we should have a unifying foundation on which to present ocean issues. Especially inspired by the scholarship of Nicholas School Ph.D. student Mary Turnipseed, I believe that the Public Trust Doctrine, an ancient legal concept with powerful, but underutilized roots in U.S. law, is an immediately accessible entry point into any ocean policy debate. Key to the Public Trust Doctrine is the idea that natural resources belong to all Americans, with the government acting as a custodian. The word “trust” allows it to be clearly tied to economic revitalization and contrasted to the extreme financial mismanagement we have experienced in recent years. It also fits perfectly with President-elect Obama’s calls to involve people more in their government. The Public Trust Doctrine can and should be applied to all federal waters. The following paragraph is a brief manifesto for public trust-based ocean conservation. I have been sharing this passage informally with colleagues and leaders — including with Ocean Champion and soon to be CIA Chief Leon Panetta:
Natural ocean and coastal resources should be considered a vital subfocus of the Obama Administration’s economic revival and long term growth plans. These resources represent a key portfolio of our Nation’s public trust, for which the Obama administration is now the trustee. The solemn duty of the trustee is to preserve the asset base of the portfolio while judiciously allowing uses of some assets and continually striving to grow the portfolio. Just as assets in our economy are inextricably linked, assets in our ocean portfolio are linked with one another and with our resources on land and our Nation’s human resources. Therefore, managing this portfolio means managing users of ocean spaces and resources in a holistic, cooperative manner. This will require a better understanding of the stocks and flows in and out of the portfolio, and the behaviors that are changing those stocks and flows. Moreover, as the recent mortgage meltdown and Ponzi schemes have made clear, assets in a trust portfolio are real and measurable—they cannot be substituted with promises of future gain predicated on entities conjured from thin air. Ocean habitats, clean water, energy potential, fishing jobs, recreation, intact ecosystems and natural beauty are real entities that belong to all Americans and held in trust by our government. The preservation of that trust is a unifying theme that should imbue all of our decisions about managing these resources.
A more thorough treatment will be published this spring in Ecology Law Quarterly. A draft manuscript is available upon request.