Split Estate Mineral Ownership 

Who Owns the Minerals Under Your Private Land?

Who Owns What?

If you purchase property in Wyoming - and many other areas in the Rocky Mountain West - you may not be purchasing all of the surface and mineral estate. An estimated 11.6 million acres of the private land in the state of Wyoming is split estate - meaning the surface rights are privately owned and the subsurface mineral rights are federally owned.

How Did This Happen?

This is the legacy of the Stock Raising Homestead Act (SRHA) of 1916 passed by Congress and signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson. This law allowed a settler to claim 640 acres of nonirrigable land that had been designated by the Secretary of the Interior as "stock raising" land. Mineral exploration was beginning to escalate and the federal government opted to maintain the mineral rights to the land claimed under this law.

The actual language found on a SRHA patent for this mineral reservation is: "Excepting and reserving, however, to the United States all the coal and other minerals in the lands so entered and patented, together with the right to prospect for, mine, and remove the same pursuant to the provisions and limitations of the Act of December 29, 1916 (39 Stat., 862)."

What does "other minerals" mean?

The term "other minerals" includes (but is not limited to):

  • leasable minerals (oil, gas, geothermal, phosphate, sodium, and potassium),
  • locatable minerals (gold, silver, copper, gypsum, and bentonite), and
  • mineral materials ( sand, gravel, scoria, pumice, and stone).

In 1982 the Supreme Court affirmed the SRHA mineral reservation definition and further defined it to include substances that:

  1. Are mineral in character,
  2. are inorganic,
  3. can be taken from the soil,
  4. can be used for commercial purposes,
  5. were not intended to be included in the surface estate,
  6. have a separate value,
  7. are not necessarily metalliferous, and
  8. may not necessarily have a definite chemical composition.
What does this mean to a land owner?

A land owner owns the surface rights for lands patented under the SRHA. The land owner has the right to develop these lands in the manner set forth by the Homestead Acts, as intended by Congress. This includes developing water sources and infrastructures associated with grazing and raising forage crops.

Mineral resources that were reserved in these patents belong to the United States. As the land owner, you do not have the right to sell the mineral resources from lands patented under the SRHA. The mineral rights are reserved to the United States. These minerals are under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior and administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Generally, the owner of the surface estate may use, without the benefit of a sales contract or permit, minimal amounts of mineral materials for their personal use within the boundaries of the surface estate.

How do I determine the mineral ownership if I'm a land owner or mineral operator?

Contact your local BLM office, they will assist you in determining if the minerals are federally owned. You and/or a specialist will check the master title plat for both surface and mineral ownership. You should also check the original land patent to determine under which Homestead Act your lands were originally patented. Some Homestead Acts only reserved certain minerals, where the SRHA reserved all minerals.

What should you do if you may have or are removing and/or selling minerals that belong to the United States?

Stop immediately. The extraction, severance, or removal of mineral materials from public lands under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior, except when authorized by permit or sale, is an act of trespass.

Trespassers may be liable for damages to the United States and may be subject to prosecution for such unlawful acts. A trespass may be:

An Innocent Trespass, which refers to the taking of mineral materials inadvertently and in good faith under a genuinely mistaken belief of a right to so extract the mineral, or

A Willful Trespass, which refers to a trespass done deliberately, intentionally, or willfully with knowledge that it was in violation of law.

If you are unsure or have questions, please contact your local BLM office for assistance.

Please Note: Several recent trespass cases have involved land owners who thought they owned the minerals and operators with an approved operating permit or small miner exclusion statement (SMES) from the State of Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (WYDEQ).

An approved mining permit or SMES from the WYDEQ does not authorize removal of mineral materials from lands with federally owned minerals. These materials are available by purchase only from the BLM. Please contact your local BLM office for more information concerning this mineral material program.

For contact information for BLM offices in Wyoming, see information sheet WYNF-0007.

There is information specific to split estate lands and mining claim locations posted at:
www.blm.gov/wy/st/en/programs/mineral_resources/Mining_Claims/homestead.html

There is oil and gas specific information about split estate lands posted at:
www.blm.gov/wo/st/en/prog/energy/oil_and_gas/best_management_practices/split_estate.html