The Beach is Yours

Back in 2016, in an important case of first impression, Conservation Law Center secured a decision from the Indiana Court of Appeals that Indiana’s Lake Michigan beach is open to the public, and that the public’s rights to the shore lakeward of the ordinary high water mark are protected as part of Indiana’s public trust obligations. On appeal, the Indiana Supreme Court had an even more favorable opinion on the Public Trust, defining the line and granting the undeniable public right to walk on the beach.

In early 2017, the Indiana Supreme Court handed down its decision in the landmark public trust case of Gunderson v. State. Conservation Law Center, with attorney Jeff Hyman leading the litigation, represented environmental groups Alliance for the Great Lakes and Save the Dunes in a bid to protect the public’s right to use the Lake Michigan shore as public land. The Center and its hard-working clinic interns worked on this case for over four years. After partial victories in the trial court and intermediate appellate court, Center clients were fully vindicated by the state’s highest court. In a unanimous decision (with Justice Slaughter recusing himself), the Court held that the boundary separating public trust land from privately-owned riparian land along the shores of Lake Michigan is the “natural” ordinary high water mark and that, absent an authorized legislative conveyance, the State retains exclusive title up to that boundary. The Court left it to the Indiana legislature to flesh out most public trust uses of the shore but confirmed that walking on the beach joins other traditional public trust uses. This court's opinion overall may be the most solid statement of the core public trust and equal footing doctrines yet by a Great Lakes state. The decision will be an enduring foundation for future advocacy of public trust rights.

In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court preserved that Indiana Supreme Court’s decision by denying cert.

Indiana’s beautiful lakefront is part of our state heritage, and future generations—not just a select few—deserve the opportunity to share in that heritage.