What is the Public Trust?
The public’s right to use California’s waterways for navigation, fishing, boating, natural habitat protection and other water oriented activities is protected by the Common Law doctrine of the Public Trust. Historically, the Public Trust has referred to the basic right of the public to use its waterways to engage in “commerce, navigation, and fisheries.” More recently, the doctrine has been broadened by various landmark court decisions to include the right to swim, boat, and engage in other forms of water recreation, and even to preserve lands in their natural state in order to protect scenic and wildlife habitat values. The Public Trust provides that tide and submerged lands and the beds of lakes, streams and other navigable waterways are to be held in trust by the State for the benefit of the people of California. The Public Trust, as a common law doctrine, is not static but is continuously evolving to protect the public’s use and needs in California’s waterways.
History of the Public Trust
What are Public Trust Lands?
Ownership and Use Issues
Landmark Court Decisions
- Prohibition on selling oceanfront tidelands: People v. Morrill, 26 Cal. 336 (1864)
- Limitations on legislative powers to give away trust lands: Illinois Central Railroad Co. v. Illinois, 146 US 387 (1892)
- Public Trust rights remain in sold tidelands: People v. Calif. Fish Co., 166 Cal. 576 (1913)
- Restrictions on use of Public Trust assets for local benefit: Mallon v. Long Beach, 44 Cal.2d 199 (1955)
- Protection of public interest in boundary and title settlements: Long Beach v. Mansell, 3 C.3d 462 (1970) Orange County v. Helm, 30 C.A.3d 694 (1973)
- Public Trust uses include environmental protection: Marks v. Whitney, 6 C.3d 251 (1971)
- Public navigation rights in privately owned streams: People v. Mack, 19 C.A.3d 1040 (1971) People v. El Dorado Co., 96 C.A.3d 403 (1979)
- Public Trust rights on lands sold in central San Francisco Bay: Berkeley v. Superior Court, 26 C.3d 515 (1980)
- Public Trust rights on lands between high and low water on non-tidal navigable lakes and streams: Calif. v. Sup. Court (Lyon), 29 C.3d 210 (1981) Calif. v. Sup. Court (Fogerty), 29 C.3d 240 (1981)
- Water rights, subject to Public Trust protections: Nat. Audubon Soc. v. Sup. Court, 33 C.3d 419 (1983)
The Commission’s core purpose is to protect the lands and resources entrusted to its care through balanced management, marine protection and pollution prevention, adaptation to climate change, and ensuring public access to these lands and waters for current and future generations of Californians. The Commission is dedicated to safeguarding and promoting the public’s access rights to waterways and the coastline.
- A legal guide to the public’s rights to access and use California’s navigable waters
- Public Access Brochure | en Español
For hard copies of these publications contact staff at CSLC.PublicAccess@slc.ca.gov or 916.574.1900.