The Public Trust Doctrine:
Wisconsin Cases Involving 
the Public Trust Doctrine

 
1903  --- Wisconsin State Supreme Court, in Huber v. Merkel, interprets state constitution to mean a landowner could use as much groundwater as he wanted regardless of how it affected adjoining property owners.  In 1974, the court overturns that decision and rules in State of Wisconsin v. Michels Pipeline Construction that state regulates groundwater for the common good of all citizens.  A property owner is entitled to reasonable use of the groundwater and must consider impacts on the water table and users.

1914 --- Diana Shooting Club v. Husting (early Supreme Court case) recognizes that navigable waters are owned by the public.  This case adds to the body of law that makes up the Public Trust Doctrine.

1929 ---  Law declares that the enjoyment of natural scenic beauty is a public right and prohibits issuing permits to build dams contrary to the public interest.  The law stopped short of preserving the esthetics of the shoreline.

1930 --- Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling in Nekoosa-Edwards Paper Co. v. Railroad Commission established that recreational activities such as sailing, canoeing, and skating are public rights.

1966 --- Wisconsin State Supreme Court decision in Hixon v. PSC recognizes the cumulative impacts of construction in navigable waters as a valid concern, and establishes that the state must consider these cumulative impacts when weighing permits to alter the shorelands.

1972 --- Wisconsin Environmental Policy Act passes requiring state agencies to consider the environmental effects of their actions to the extent possible.  It also establishes the principle that broad citizen participation should be part of environmental decision making.

1972 --- Wisconsin Supreme Court reaffirms the Public Trust Doctrine in Just v. Marinette.  The doctrine was established in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and adopted in the state Constitution.  It decreed that the waterways were "common highways and forever free," and was the basis for the state’s wetland and shoreland laws.

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