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Criminal Prosecutions

The federal statute on public lands provides that the use, occupancy, or development of any portion of the public lands contrary to any regulation of the Secretary of the Interior or other responsible authority, or contrary to any order issued pursuant to any such regulation, is unlawful and prohibited[i].

Any person, who knowingly and willfully violates a regulation relating to the management, use, and protection of public lands, including property on public lands, will be subject to the penalty of a fine, imprisonment, or both[ii].

Federal statute also provides for criminal prosecutions for certain prohibited conduct on public lands, such as:

  • removal of coal[iii],
  • violation of rules and regulations relating to national forests[iv],
  • misuse of timber[v],
  • unattended or unextinguished fires[vi],
  • destruction of fences[vii],
  • destruction or removal of survey marks[viii],
  • deception of prospective purchasers[ix],
  • bids at public land sales[x],
  • trespass on national forest lands[xi], and
  • hazardous or injurious devices on federal lands[xii].


Further, it is also an offense to unlawfully inclose or obstruct public lands.  Any person unlawfully inclosing or obstructing public lands whether as an owner, part owner, or agent, or who aids, abets, counsels, advises, or assists in such inclosure or obstruction will be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor and will be fined or be imprisoned not exceeding one year, or both, for each offense[xiii].

Similarly, it is an offence to conspire to acquire public lands through fraudulent and corrupt practices[xiv].  Further, any person who appropriates, excavates, injures, or destroys any historic or prehistoric ruin or monument, or any object of antiquity, situated on lands owned or controlled by the Government of the U.S., without permission will be fined or imprisoned, or may suffer both fine and imprisonment, in the discretion of the court[xv].

Also, it is a criminal offense to embezzle, steal, purloin, or knowingly convert property of the U.S[xvi].  Similarly, whoever willfully injures or commits any depredation against any property of the U.S., or of any department or agency thereof, or any property which has been or is being manufactured or constructed for the U.S., or any department or agency thereof, or attempts to commit any such offense, will be punished by fine or imprisonment, or both, according to the amount of the damage or attempted damage to the property[xvii].

The U.S. can pursue the protection or the reclamation of the public lands and the equitable remedies an individual, under like circumstances, may pursue in reference to his/her own land, and is entitled to the same measure of relief which would be extended to him/her[xviii].

At the request of the Secretary, the Attorney General may institute a civil action in any U.S. district court for an injunction or other appropriate order to prevent any person from utilizing public lands in violation of regulations issued by the Secretary of the Interior[xix].

Similarly, the U.S. may sue to enjoin:

  • the setting up or making any claim to title by a person who has allegedly procured public lands by fraud through the intervention of a state[xx].
  • the unauthorized pasturing of cattle upon the lands within a national monument[xxi].
  • the continued violation of the express conditions of the grant by a grantee of lands and rights of way in the public domain of the U.S., notwithstanding equitable defenses and considerations of estoppel founded upon past interpretations of the grant and rulings made by administrative officers[xxii].


[i] 43 USCS § 1733 (g).

[ii] 43 USCS § 1733 (a).

[iii] 18 USCS § 1851.

[iv] 16 USCS § 551.

[v] 18 USCS § 1852.

[vi] 18 USCS § 1856.

[vii] 18 USCS § 1857.

[viii] 18 USCS § 1858.

[ix] 18 USCS § 1861.

[x] 18 USCS § 1860.

[xi] 18 USCS § 1863.

[xii] 18 USCS § 1864.

[xiii] 43 USCS § 1064.

[xiv] United States v. Davis, 231 U.S. 183 (U.S. 1913).

[xv] 16 USCS § 433.

[xvi] 18 USCS § 641.

[xvii] 18 USCS § 1361.

[xviii] Steele v. Walker, 115 Ala. 485 (Ala. 1896).

[xix] 43 USCS § 1733 (b).

[xx] Independent Coal & Coke Co. v. United States, 274 U.S. 640 (U.S. 1927).

[xxi] Hunter v. United States, 388 F.2d 148, 155 (9th Cir. Cal. 1967).

[xxii] United States v. San Francisco, 310 U.S. 16 (U.S. 1940).

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