The Public Trust Doctrine is the principle that wildlife cannot be owned by private citizens. It is the fundamental reason why we enjoy a bounty of wildlife in this country and throughout North America. Instead of identifying landowners, government appointees or other individuals as owners of wildlife, wildlife resources are held in trust for the benefit of all citizens. The “trustee” is the responsible authority that has jurisdiction for those species and is usually the state or federal government.
This principle originated from the Justinian Code which was a part of the Roman law. In this law, the only way the public could own a wild animal was when they physically possessed it which usually meant when the animal was harvested and subsequently used for food. When the Magna Carta was being created, the English did not like the idea of something not having an owner, the English decided that the king would serve as a trustee of the land and would hold it in trust for the people. The early American colonies operated under the Magna Carta rule until the American Revolution. Americans believed that wildlife belonged to all people and, thus, began operating under the Public Trust Doctrine. Under the Doctrine, the government is charged with maintaining the natural resources so that they may be preserved for future generations.
The Public Trust Doctrine is a great conservation tool, but in order for it to be effective, the public must understand that wildlife belongs to everyone, the government needs to be held accountable for the trust, and the Doctrine must be kept up to date. As I reflect on this doctrine of public trust, I am so thankful to be a Warnell student because they place such value and emphasis on wildlife being held in public trust, continually impressing upon us that it is our responsibility as future natural resource managers to manage our resources in a way that maximizes their value. This mindset is imperative of natural resource managers. In a culture where the general school of thought is, “How does this benefit me?” and where little thought is given to how others are affected by our actions and decisions, I feel so blessed to have found an institution, like Warnell, that places such emphasis on the importance of benefiting the greatest number of people through our actions. I am, indeed, proud to be a Warnell student and ambassador!