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United States Bureau of Land Management
Energy and Minerals
Technical Assistance Program


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Public Versus Private Property Rights

Public Lands
Private Lands


Land and Minerals (including oil and gas) can be owned by either public or private entities. Public entities are the various units of government, commonly divided into Federal, State, and Local. All other entities are considered private, even organizations comprised of members purporting to be acting in the public interest, some having the word "public" in their title.


Public Lands

Federal land is also referred to as "national" or "US Government." As such it is "owned" by all citizens in common, and their rights are exercised by a variety of national agencies with various legislated missions. This category of land ranges from scattered parcels upon which federal buildings are located to the western state of Nevada where over 80% percent of the land is federal and is used for a wide range of purposes. It is important to note that land ownership patterns may be interspersed, and in a two dimensional fashion (horizontally and vertically). Other forms of publicly owned lands, as well as private lands, may be found in randomly contiguous patterns . This has largely occured because land can be bought and sold in transactions between willing sellers and buyers. More will be said about this transaction process below.

The fifty States have publically owned lands which have been acquired in a variety of actions, often linked in some part to their initial statehood. State entities manage this component of public lands as agents of the citizens of those states, and individual state laws govern those actions. Those laws may not be in conflict with national laws. Often there are arrangements for the common management of various types of public lands, so portions of national and state lands will be managed in some integrated form.

So-called "local" lands include lands owned by cities, towns, counties, townships, parishs and other such local entities. On a smaller and more local scale these lands may serve many of the same purposes as state and federal lands.

In the United States approximately one third of all lands are publically held. As public lands are typically used for public purposes that often are different from private purposes, their presence has varying impacts on the management and use of contiguous private lands. This will be reflected in part in the following comments about private lands.


Private Lands

One might readily expect that the simplest way to characterize private land is to observe that it is all non public land. That certainly is a starting point, but it can be somewhat missleading, and certainly is not terribly informative. Let us begin with who owns private land and what those ownership rights are.

First, it is correct to assume that private land is all of the land that is not public. Public agencies do not "own" private land. Private land is owned by individuals singly or collectively. The most common collective ownership is by firms or corporations doing business.

Second, however, is an important element of land ownership that relates to attendant energy and minerals rights. Simply stated, these rights are severable, and, as with the land, fully marketable by any and all owners. Thus, a first example of this unique characteristic is that private individuals may own minerals rights under public lands; the reverse is also true. Thus, in an environment where there is a dynamic market for energy and mineral rights, in combination and separably, the resulting distribution of these rights at any time is extraordinarily complex. Further, rights owners may subsequently resell partial rights to exploration, production, and marketing of energy and minerals products to additional owners. These owners in turn may engage various technical entities to conduct exploration, extraction, and production and marketing of all original and derived products.

Whereas this may seem to represent chaos, it is in fact a highly energized manifestation of an efficient allocation of resources to meet the expressed needs of society. Order is brought by the natural tendency for dominant players to evolve, which may include the federal land and minerals owner/manager in some instances. Further order results from the essential reinforcement of the primacy of individual rights, which stems from the Constitution and is reflected throughout subsequent legislation and judicial history. Thus, there is a very predictable and reliable set of rules and practices that govern property ownership and related transactions.

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For more information contact:
Dr Adam A. Sokoloski, Manager
International Energy and Minerals
Technical Assistance Program
1849 C St. N.W., Washington, D.C. USA, 20240
USA Phone: 703-452-7731, FAX 703-452-5199
E-mail: DSokolos@WO0033wp.wo.blm.gov