Blueprint for the Great Lakes Trail

Blueprint for the Great Lakes Trail

Melissa K. Scanlan

Vermont Law School

July 31, 2014

Michigan Journal of Environmental & Administrative Law, July 31, 2014.
Vermont Law School Research Paper No. 14-14


The Great Lakes are vast yet vulnerable. There is a need to focus the public’s attention on the significance of the lakes for the region as a cohesive, bi-national whole. To address this need, build on existing water law, and engage the public, this article provides a blueprint to establish a Great Lakes Trail on the shores of the Great Lakes. The trail will link together 10,000 miles of coastline and provide the longest marked walking trail in the world. It will demarcate an already existing, yet largely unrecognized, public trust easement and engage the public with their common heritage in the lakeshore.

The Great Lakes Trail is rooted in longstanding legal rights in the beach commons that have been forgotten and eroded over time. The trail provides a tangible way to restore the public’s coastal history and reinvigorate public trust rights.

In the United States, when each of the Great Lakes states entered the Union, the federal government transferred to them the waters and lake beds of the Great Lakes up to the Ordinary High Water Mark on the beach. The states were to hold these lands and waters in trust for the public use and enjoyment. In 2005, the Michigan Supreme Court held in favor of the public’s right to access and walk along this beach. This is the only Great Lakes state court decision to directly address the public’s right to walk along the Great Lakes, and it provides an excellent contemporary model decision for the region. On the Canadian side of the Great Lakes there is an existing movement to build a Waterfront Trail along all of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River, as well as legislative efforts to recognize a right of passage on foot along the Great Lakes shoreline. However, the states and provinces lack consistency in how they address public access to this coast, and have not identified it as a broad public asset like the Appalachian Trail.

Establishing the Great Lakes Trail will be a monumental effort, requiring a multidisciplinary approach. It will require generating local, and especially lakeshore property owners’ support for the trail; developing a system of local volunteers; working with artists and educators to design art installations and signs that reflect each community’s values and educate the public about Great Lakes ecological and legal issues; building local tourism economies with chambers of commerce to promote trailoriented businesses; and partnering with GIS mappers and App developers to produce real time local business information and mapping. Ultimately, getting people to utilize their public trust rights in walking the coasts of the Great Lakes engages them in actively seeing the importance of the Great Lakes as an ecological, political, economic, and cultural asset, which is a precursor to developing and implementing cooperative Great Lakes governance structures.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 31

Accepted Paper Series

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