Legal intern Trevor Frank supplies this first of two reports:
Preserving Cougar Bay will implicate “the public trust doctrine” – a legal doctrine that holds, basically, that natural resources should be maintained for the public’s interest. It is a doctrine that applies in Idaho because of a case brought by Kootenai Environmental Alliance.
Historically, water bodies have been thought of as a public resource under the management of the state. For example, dating all the way back to the Roman Empire, seashores not appropriated for private use were open to all. The Magna Carta subsequently provided for the opening of rivers for public navigation. English law continued to strengthen public water rights and, in 1892, the public trust doctrine was formally recognized in the United States by the Supreme Court in the case of Illinois Central Railroad v. Illinois, 146 U.S. 387 (1892). It is a common law doctrine – governed by previous judicial decisions rather than by legislative statute – and certain specifics of the doctrine vary from state to state.
The public trust doctrine was established in Idaho in the case Kootenai Environmental Alliance, Inc. v. Panhandle Yacht Club, Inc., 105 Idaho 622 (1983). In that case, Kootenai Environmental Alliance (KEA), represented by attorney Scott Reed, appealed a decision to grant Panhandle Yacht Club an encroachment permit for a marina. KEA argued that granting the permit violated the public trust doctrine because the private marina would not serve the public at large. More specifically, KEA argued that the yacht club would benefit only a handful of private members, that the marina would impair aesthetics, that the marina impair fishing access, and that the marina would be detrimental to water quality, fish, and aquatic habitat.
KEA lost the case. The court upheld the decision to allow the marina, finding the original hearing officer had determined that an economic need existed for sailboat moorage and that “little or no adverse effect will be registered against property, navigation, fish and wildlife habitat, aquatic life, recreation, aesthetic beauty or water quality.” However, although the original decision to allow the yacht club was upheld, the court noted that the public trust doctrine applied, and that the marina approval would remain subject to the public trust.
Since that case, in Idaho, the public trust doctrine states that lakebeds and streambeds below the natural high-water mark are owned by the state and must be held in public trust for the benefit and use of its citizens. States are allowed to privately lease this public property for private use docks, marinas, etc., but the lease must still preserve the public trust interest in the public resource. Essentially, the doctrine gives the State the power and responsibility to regulate waterways in a manner that is consistent with public interests.
The state has a set of statutes that apply to the permitting of docks and regulating waterways, but these statutes are in addition to the public trust doctrine. The decision in the Kootenai Environmental Alliance, Inc. v. Panhandle Yacht Club, Inc. case is still cited as the bedrock of the Idaho public trust doctrine. This critically important legal doctrine will be directly applicable to our efforts to Save Cougar Bay.
UPDATE 8/27/2011: Here’s an interesting article on Nevada’s recent adoption of the public trust doctrine. Relying, of course, on Idaho’s precedent.