Ecosystem Services (Part III): Property Law and Ecosystem Services



This is the 3rd posting in a 4-part series on ecosystem services.  Ecosystem services are the services that nature provides to humans, society, and the economy.  Today, I list below 3 articles that address various aspects of the relationship between ecosystem services and property law, including regulatory takings, nuisance, and the public trust doctrine.  Please see previous postings for an overview of ecosystem services and the relationship between land use and ecosystem services.  A future posting will address issues in valuing ecosystem services.    


1) Ruhl, J.B., The 'Background Principles' of Natural Capital and Ecosystem Services - Did Lucas Open Pandora's Box?(September 2006). FSU College of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 214. Available at SSRN:    




In his majority opinion in Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council, Justice Scalia established the relevant background principles of state property law as the reference point for testing whether public regulation or private property goes so far as to constitute a categorical taking of property. He also confirmed, however, that those background principles evolve with new knowledge and changed circumstances.

Over the past decade, the discipline of ecological economics has produced a burgeoning body of research illuminating the significant economic value that functioning ecosystems, acting as natural capital, supply humans in the form of direct and indirect ecosystem services, such as the capacity of coastal wetlands to mitigate storm surges. This article explores how these findings fit into the Lucas calculus.

Based on work by Professor John Sprankling, the Article concludes that the background principles of property law have resisted integrating concepts like natural capital and ecosystem services into property doctrine. On the other hand, based on work by Professor Michael Blumm, the Article confirms that the amassing body of research about natural capital and ecosystem service values is precisely the kind of new knowledge that ought to transform those background principles. The Article concludes by discussing two recent cases in which courts have done exactly that - to integrate knowledge about natural capital and ecosystem service values in order to apply common law property doctrine in ways contrary to the established background principles. If this trend spreads, Lucas will indeed have opened a Pandora's box, with impacts on the common law it is difficult to imagine the Justice Scalia and majority had in mind.


2) Ruhl, J.B., Making Nuisance Ecological(September 2006). FSU College of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 216. Available at SSRN:    




Common law nuisance doctrine has the reputation of having provided much of the strength and content of environmental law prior to the rise of federal statutory regimes in the 1970s, but since then has taken a back seat to regulatory law with respect to the environment. In particular, whereas nuisance doctrine has been criticized - many say too harshly - as being inadequate for dealing with the demands of modern pollution control, it has never been considered as having much at all to do with management of ecological concerns. Yet nuisance law evolves with changed circumstances and new knowledge. This article examines one such evolutionary force - new knowledge of the economic value of natural capital, such as coastal wetlands, and the ecosystem services that flow from it, such as mitigation of storm surges.

Part I of the Article outlines the prima facie case of an ecosystem services nuisance, showing that the conventional doctrine of private and public nuisance is aptly suited to engaging situations when one landowner manages his or her property so as to deprive another of economically valuable ecosystem services. Temporal, spatial, and cumulative effects may complicate such cases, but do not shift this form of injury outside the scope of nuisance. Part II examines the advantages and disadvantages of relying on nuisance law in this context. The primary advantages are the local focus of nuisance law and its information-producing effects, whereas the disadvantages normally associated with common law claims are not strongly operative. Part III argues that the ecosystem services nuisance theory of liability should be pursued alongside statutory regimes designed to manage natural capital and ecosystem services, so as to promote legitimacy of the statutory program and to help insulate it from regulatory takings claims. On the other hand, Part III also argues against a more expansive common law theory designed to encompass moral, ethical, and scientific harms to our sense of ecological integrity.


3) Ruhl, J.B. and Salzman, James  E., Ecosystem Services and the Public Trust Doctrine: Working Change from Within. FSU College of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 217. Available at SSRN:    




What to do with the public trust doctrine? Environmental law scholars have been asking that question for going on 40 years, ever since Professor Joseph Sax surmised in his famous law journal article on the topic that of all the concepts known to American law, only the public trust doctrine seems to have the breadth and substantive content which might make it useful as a tool of general application for citizens seeking to develop a comprehensive legal approach to resource management problems. In this Article we briefly survey reasons why his vision has yet to be fulfilled, and we propose a way the public trust doctrine can be used to achieve a good measure of Sax's vision by working from within the doctrine, not by changing it.

Unlike the outpouring of academic proposals to liberate, expand, and modify the public trust doctrine to fulfill Sax's goals, for purposes of this Article we accept that the doctrine remains bound to its utilitarian origins. Rather than propose expanding the doctrine outside of its traditional boundaries, therefore, we use its core utilitarian purposes as the medium for protecting ecological resources. We employ the concepts of natural capital and ecosystem services to develop the ecological scope of the public trust doctrine from within. Our argument is straightforward: traditional public trust resources often contain natural capital supplying economically valuable ecosystem services to the public; the public's enjoyment of those values is appropriately treated as a use of the trust lands within the meaning of the public trust doctrine; therefore, the restrictions applicable under the public trust doctrine attach to the natural capital found on trust lands. Thus, rather than reshape the public trust doctrine to fit ecological goals, we propose reshaping the way ecological goals are framed to fit the public trust doctrine. This approach both advances Sax's vision and mitigates the concerns other scholars have expressed about stretching the public trust doctrine beyond its traditional scope.