Public trust doctrine is the latest rage among law professors with a radical agenda. It challenges private ownership of natural resources and believes the state has the right to claim title to those resources in the name of the people. As Professor Robert I. Reis at the University of Buffalo School of Law notes, this elastic doctrine, though it begrudgingly acknowledges private property rights, also points toward their elimination; “It might be said that as the public trust doctrine expands to include contemporary environmental and social interests within the scope of its purview, the correlative private rights or future privatization of rights would be precluded or significantly diminished.” (Italics added.)

Professor Reis compares this doctrine to navigational servitude cases, in which public trust property is “not protected against a taking [by the state].” In the interest of protecting the environment, a landowner’s right to just compensation for property offered under the due process clause could therefore be dismissed, since “the right of the people to the full benefit, use and enjoyment of national and natural resource treasures as trusts for the People” transcends private property guarantees. Here in shameless fashion is an attack on the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution and its provision that life, liberty, and property cannot be denied without due process.

What Reis and his radical colleagues have done is define property rights right out of existence. Like the Utopian Socialists who argued that all property belongs to the people—meaning the government—this newly formulated doctrine rests on the belief that public authorities are the best protectors against environmental damage. To protect the natural bounty we should not hesitate to eliminate private property.

This doctrine in effect overturns a thousand years of English Common Law. Despite what it says, the state assumes a dubious authority when it confiscates land without just compensation. In the Adirondack region of New York, the state has already acted arbitrarily. If the state has the power to alienate private property, then private property guarantees are meaningless and the very Constitution is rendered nugatory.

It is hard to believe that as the Cold War and the ideological battle between public property and private property that characterized this struggle are ending on the world stage, the same ideological battle is about to be fought in our domestic courts. This time it is not communism vs. capitalism, but environmentalism vs. the efficacy of private property. Yet the net result is the same: private property is under siege, this time by the self-appointed saviors of a pristine environment.

It may sound as if public trust doctrine represents the will of the people. The doctrine’s name has a Rousseauean ring to it. But as in the phrases “power to the People” and “Peoples’ Republic,” when the word “people” is capitalized, individuals should tremble. What it usually means is that someone wants to erode individual rights and deprive people of their hard-earned rewards.