Renouncing the Public Trust Doctrine: An Assessment of the Validity of Idaho House Bill 794

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Ecology Law Quarterly

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Ecology L.Q.


Under the influence of powerful irrigation and timber lobbies, the state of Idaho enacted a law in 1996 which renounced the application of the public trust doctrine to water rights and public land decisionmaking, in an effort to overturn several decisions of the Idaho Supreme Court. This article explains the genesis of that law, exposes its flaws, and questions its validity. In particular, we maintain that the rights that Idaho legislature attempted to terminate are in fact inalienable, sovereign rights that a state cannot renounce. We also argue that a state cannot, consistent with the federal law, terminate public rights in lands conveyed to the state under the equal footing doctrine. Finally, we contend that the Idaho statute violates the state constitution's declaration of the public character of water within the state. The article notes that its analysis may have use beyond the state of Idaho, as several other western states have constitutional provisions that could be interpreted to incorporate the public trust doctrine.

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