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Public Lands

The term public land means land owned by a government[i].  It is habitually used to designate land subject to sale, not held back or reserved for special governmental or public purposes[ii].  It does not include lands to which rights have attached and become vested through full compliance with applicable land law.

The term public lands of the U.S. as the term is used in federal statutes refers to those lands subject to sale or disposal under general laws, excluding those to which any claims or rights of others have attached[iii].

The terms public lands or public domain are regarded as synonymous[iv].  The lands owned by the federal government are generally classified as either public domain lands or reserved lands[v].

Under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), the term public lands means any land and interest in land owned by the U.S. within the several states and administered by the Secretary of the Interior through the Bureau of Land Management[vi].  However, public land does not include:

  • lands located on the Outer Continental Shelf; and
  • lands held for the benefit of Indians, Aleuts, and Eskimos.


The FLPMA requires the Secretary of Interior to prepare and maintain an inventory of all public lands[vii].  Further, during this period of review, the Secretary should continue to manage such lands according to his/her authority under this act and other applicable law in a manner so as not to impair the suitability of such areas for preservation as wilderness.

The Secretary of the Interior or such officer as s/he may designate performs all executive duties appertaining to the surveying and sale of the public lands of the U.S., or in any way respecting such public lands, and, also, such as relate to private claims of land, and the issuing of patents for all grants of land under the authority of the government[viii].

Under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, the term public lands means[ix]:

  • lands which are owned and administered by the U.S. as part of:


  1. the national park system,
  2. the national wildlife refuge system, or
  3. the national forest system; and


all other lands the fee title to which is held by the U.S., other than lands on the Outer Continental Shelf and lands which are under the jurisdiction of the Smithsonian Institution.


Acquired land and public land differ from each other[x].  Acquired land is government owned land acquired from private ownership.   However, public land is government owned land which was part of the original public domain.

Lands granted to, or owned by, a state for purposes other than for general internal improvement and for general drainage and reclamation are for particular purposes and are not a part of the public lands[xi].  Also, lands formerly owned by individuals and through taxation vested in the state for nonpayment of taxes and failure to redeem are not public lands of the state.

While the phrase public land is a term ordinarily used to designate land subject to sale under general laws, it is sometimes used in a larger sense and it includes lands within Indian reservations[xii].  However, the term public land does not include:

  • land that has been held back or reserved for a governmental or public purpose[xiii].
  • land to which the claims or rights of others have attached[xiv].
  • lands granted under terms upon which Congress has not finally acted[xv].
  • streets and highways[xvi].
  • tidelands bordering on navigable water[xvii].
  • lands under the navigable waters[xviii].
  • lands covered by tax sale certificates held by a state for the nonpayment of taxes[xix].
  • native American lands[xx].
  • unsurveyed lands[xxi].


[i] United States v. Kipp, 369 F. Supp. 774, 776 (D. Mont. 1974).

[ii] Holz v. Lyles, 280 Ala. 521, 522 (Ala. 1967).

[iii] Humboldt County v. United States, 684 F.2d 1276, 1281 (9th Cir. Nev. 1982).

[iv] Holz v. Lyles, 280 Ala. 521, 522 (Ala. 1967).

[v] United States v. Denver, 656 P.2d 1 (Colo. 1982).

[vi] 43 USCS § 1702 (e).

[vii] Humboldt County v. United States, 684 F.2d 1276 (9th Cir. Nev. 1982).

[viii] Western Nuclear v. Andrus, 664 F.2d 234 (10th Cir. Wyo. 1981).

[ix] 16 USCS § 470bb (3).

[x] Thompson v. United States, 308 F.2d 628, 631 (9th Cir. Idaho 1962).

[xi] State ex rel. Crescent City v. Holland, 151 Fla. 806 (Fla. 1942).

[xii] Kindred v. Union P. R. Co., 225 U.S. 582 (U.S. 1912).

[xiii] Holz v. Lyles, 280 Ala. 521, 522 (Ala. 1967).

[xiv] Humboldt County v. United States, 684 F.2d 1276, 1281 (9th Cir. Nev. 1982).

[xv] Cameron v. United States, 148 U.S. 301, 307 (U.S. 1893).

[xvi] Berry v. Chesapeake, 209 Va. 525 (Va. 1969).

[xvii] Baer v. Moran Bros. Co., 153 U.S. 287 (U.S. 1894).

[xviii] State ex rel. Crescent City v. Holland, 151 Fla. 806, 834 (Fla. 1942).

[xix] Id.

[xx] Missouri, K. & T. R. Co. v. United States, 235 U.S. 37 (U.S. 1914).

[xxi] United States v. Northern P. R. Co., 311 U.S. 317 (U.S. 1940).

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