Conservation Training

Common Highways and Forever Free: Milwaukee Lakefront Tour

June 16, 2022

4:00 pm – 7:00 pm
Location: Milwaukee, WI

An afternoon boat ride from 4-6pm where participants will hear all about the issues surrounding the Public Trust Doctrine from the water. Our speaker panel includes Michael Cain, co-chair of WGF’s Public Trust and Wetlands work group, Historian John Gurda, Rhonda Nordstrom, Water City Program Coordinator with Milwaukee Water Commons, and Cheryl Nenn, Riverkeeper with Milwaukee’s Riverkeeper. The boat tour will be followed by a social hour from 6-7pm at the Sail Loft restaurant.

The Wisconsin Constitution declares that all navigable waters (where it is possible to float a canoe or small boat) are “common highways and forever free” and held in trust by the state for the public good. Also known as the Public Trust Doctrine, the Wisconsin DNR is charged with protecting our navigable waters and their water quality as well as peoples’ rights to recreate on them and enjoy their scenic beauty.

With its miles of Lake Michigan lakefront and riverfront property, Milwaukee’s water has long been a source of pride and a defining characteristic for the city. Since the Clean Water Act was signed into law 50 years ago, the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnikinic rivers have seen a transformation from heavily polluted with toxic chemicals and industrial waste to a recovering system shared by fish, birds, and people alike.

Despite these successes, Milwaukee’s lakefront and riverfronts have long been at the center of Public Trust Doctrine disputes. Challenges arise when private developers or businesses attempt to privatize lakebed areas which must be maintained for public use and enjoyment. Disputes highlight social justice and equity issues related to access as well as threats to surrounding water quality and scenic enjoyment.