Sunrise light on a grove of tufa towers emerging from the water of Mono Lake with soft green and dusty-red wild grasses in the foreground, Canada geese in the shallow water with reflections of the rocky towers, and desert hills in the distance.

A Mono Lake friend lost: Joe Sax 1936-2014

Professor Joseph Sax, who laid the legal foundation for the application of the Public Trust Doctrine to natural resource protection, passed away on Sunday. The public trust has been most notably applied at Mono Lake, where the protections from excessive water diversions that we celebrate today flow straight back to the 1983 California Supreme Court decision that was substantially informed by his visionary work.

Professor Joseph Sax speaks at last year's Defender of the Trust award ceremony, at which he was honored. Photo by Arya Degenhardt.

Last spring, the Mono Lake Committee awarded Professor Sax our Defender of the Trust Award. In a prior public speech on the public trust, he spoke of the need for continuing involvement by state agencies and the public in the stewardship and implementation of the public trust doctrine. Here at the Mono Lake Committee we will continue that effort every day, and we will do it with Professor Sax as inspiration.

From the Los Angeles Times:

In 1970, Joseph Sax wrote a law review article that laid the foundation for a court case that would become famous in the annals of California water.

More than a decade after publication of Sax’s seminal essay on the public trust doctrine, the California Supreme Court ruled that the state had a duty to take into account the public trust in allocating water resources — an opinion that ultimately forced Los Angeles to reduce diversions from the Mono Lake basin in the Eastern Sierra.

While arguably the piece that Sax is best known for, the Michigan Law Review article was just one of many influential works he wrote over the course of a long career as a legal scholar and law professor.

“I think Joe, more than anybody else, is responsible for the very existence of the field called ‘environmental law,'” said Barton “Buzz” Thompson Jr., a Stanford law school professor who with Sax wrote a leading textbook on water law. “Joe came up with some of the central concepts that are still key to environmental law.”

In the media
Los Angeles Times: Joseph Sax dies at 78; law professor wrote influential article on public trust doctrine
New York Times: Joseph Sax, Who Pioneered Environmental Law, Dies at 78
San Francisco Chronicle: Joseph Sax, Public Trust Doctrine Author Dies 



  1. “Mountains Without Handrails” is a classic.
    He created opportunities for us all!