Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

Salameander: Seeking Common Ground in Public Trust Resources

SalameanderEverything is connected – that is old knowledge.  But  it is knowledge that is reinforced by an article sent to me today, one of several pointing out how climate change and resulting drought contributed to the current conflict in Syria (see How Climate Change Created the Syrian Crisis).  Multiple ethnic groups in Syria have struggled for survival in recent years – for water, for food.  Of course, many other factors are also involved in the Syrian conflict.  But to whatever extent  drought has contributed to current events, it is tragically clear that need and fear can lead to horrific acts against other human beings.

Syria is obviously at a far end of the spectrum of desperation, with no obvious solutions in sight. At the other end, in our green and prosperous nation, we still have much to learn about acknowledging and protecting our common natural resources, not only for today but for future generations.

Traditionally in the United States, the ownership of land is deeply important to our sense of self, and is fiercely, rightly, protected. But we often forget that our shared ownership of public resources – of water, fish, and wildlife – is equally important to our sense of community, and to our day-to-day security. Think for a moment of the feeling of well-being that we all carry (usually without acknowledging it) based on the simple availability of a cup of fresh water.  Imagine for a moment how we would react if water was taken away. As we cope with serious economic and social concerns, few of us can even imagine a dry tap, or the lack of water to grow food to supply our nation.  We must be equally fierce in our protection of public resources.

Wetland managers are well aware of the value of water – including the wetland component which lies at the nexus of so many ecological functions. Increasingly we speak of these as ecological services with economic value.  These are important messages, and critical to our legal framework. We weigh public values, public interest, and private needs in daily permitting decisions. Yet, in spite of the current laws and increasing scientific and social understanding, we continue to lose wetland resources – often through cumulative small impacts, sometimes through changes in public policy.

Perhaps we need to speak in more basic terms – reminding ourselves of the public’s very real interest in commonly held resources that are of fundamental importance to our well-being.  We need to explain the public trust.

Too often the protection of public trust resources is portrayed as the act of overreaching government agencies. The opposite is true – protection of public trust resources is an obligation imposed on government. We need to foster understanding that protection of our waters, our fish and game, and our air is an essential responsibility of government – a significant part of the obligation of our government to serve the common good.  Our regulations to protect water, air and wildlife are no more and no less than a part of the framework to fulfill that obligation.  Individual actions that wantonly damage or destroy shared resources – whether regulated or not – should be unacceptable to us all.

Yes – we need to continue to weigh and balance public and private rights and needs, and to make reasonable decisions in our complex world.   But perhaps we need to look to the far end of the spectrum – to Syria and other third world areas – to see how very heavily our common interest in water and other public trust resources – should rest on those scales.

For more information visit:

Your Labor Day Syria Reader, Part 2:  William Polk.

GOING, GOING, GONE!  Millions of Acres of Wetlands and Fragile Land Go Under the Plow

Restoring China’s disappearing wetlands

A bundle of services is key to resilience

The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) for Water and Wetland

This entry was posted in climate change, natural resources, water, wetland and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *