Traverse City Record-Eagle

Record-Eagle 150th Anniversary

October 5, 2009

Water Wars: Advocating for 'public trust'


Indeed, he entered uncharted legal territory. He knew of no MEPA cases when he opened his Traverse City office. Environmental law was a developing field.

Disillusionment over how MEPA and public interest arguments fared in two of his earliest "citizens" cases was part of that sorting process. One case involved a strip of public land near the Boardman River that the state Department of Transportation proposed to sell for a Holiday Inn expansion. Another was a citizen's suit seeking to block a proposed coal dock for Cleveland Cliffs mining company in the Upper Marquette Harbor.

He began reading everything he could find on the public trust doctrine.

"In my work in the legal system western jurisprudence, I had never come across the idea that there was more to the law than simply bailing out competing interests, that would look at something as stewardship. The only thing I can think of similar to this idea is the Bills of Rights, something that transcended the self-interest of competing interests."

In 1974, five years into his practice, he decided to get a post-graduate master of law degree in public lands, natural resources and environmental law at the University of Michigan Law School, while continuing to practice law. Sax, who taught at U-M from 1966 to 1986, oversaw his three years of study.

Today, after more than three decades of practice, Olson believes the public trust doctrine can save essential natural resources like water for future generations and protect them from further degradation, destruction, privatization for export across the world.

Olson is a firm believer in citizen participation, too. He was a co-founder of Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council in 1980. He is chairman of the steering committee for the new Flow for Water Coalition of several nonprofit, citizen-based organizations from Michigan, the Great Lakes basin, the United States, and Canada.

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