Skip to main content

The public trust doctrine

Waterway protection



Wisconsin's Waters Belong to Everyone

All Wisconsin citizens have the right to boat, fish, hunt, ice skate, and swim on navigable waters, as well as enjoy the natural scenic beauty of navigable waters, and enjoy the quality and quantity of water that supports those uses.

Wisconsin lakes and rivers are public resources, owned in common by all Wisconsin citizens under the state's Public Trust Doctrine. Written in the state constitution in article IX, s. 1, the Public Trust Doctrine declares that all navigable waters are "common highways and forever free" and held in trust by the State of Wisconsin.


Navigable Waters

The Public Trust Doctrine applies to all navigable waters, which are defined as any waterway on which it is possible to float a canoe or small watercraft at some time during the year.


Public Interests Protected in Navigable Waters

The Public Trust Doctrine protects the people of Wisconsin's rights to:

  • Transportation and navigation on waterways
  • Protection of water quality and aquatic habitat
  • Recreational activities, including boating, fishing, hunting, trapping and swimming in waterways
  • Enjoyment of scenic beauty while on the water


The Public Trust Doctrine and Riparian Rights

Wisconsin law recognizes that an owner of land that borders lakes and rivers, known as riparian owners - hold rights to use the water next to their property. These riparian rights include the use of the shoreline, reasonable use of the water, and a right to access the water. However, the Wisconsin State Supreme Court has ruled that when conflicts occur between the rights of riparian owners and public rights, the public's rights are primary and the riparian owner's secondary.

Wisconsin's stream and lake access laws


The Public Trust Doctrine is Proactive

Wisconsin's Public Trust Doctrine requires the State of Wisconsin to intervene to protect public rights in the commercial or recreational use of navigable waters. The DNR does this through permitting requirements for water projects, court action to stop nuisances in navigable waters, and statutes that authorize local zoning ordinances that limit development along navigable waterways.


Citizen Action and the Public Trust Doctrine

Wisconsin citizens have taken action to protect public interest in navigable waters that has had a significant impact on the Public Trust Doctrine. Watch how their efforts have benefitted all Wisconsinites in this three part video series:

Champions of the Public Trust Part 1 [Exit DNR]

Champions of the Public Trust Part 2 [Exit DNR]

Champions of the Public Trust Part 3 [Exit DNR]


Read about those efforts here: Champions of the Public Trust [PDF].