Public Trust Doctrine Law and Legal Definition

Public Trust Doctrine refers to a common law doctrine creating the legal right of the public to use certain lands and waters. The right may be concurrent with private ownership. The legal interest of the public is not absolute; it is determined by a balancing of interests. The rights of the public are vested in each state as owner and trustee of Trust lands.

Generally, tidewaters to their farthest reach, tidelands, navigable waters, and permanently submerged lands, including those extending lakeward or seaward to the limit of state ownership, are subject to the Public Trust Doctrine. The Public Trust Doctrine arises from the fact that Trust lands are special in nature physically and legally. Historically, the public use of these waters and lands was crucial for sustenance, travel, and commerce.