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Natural resource ownership in the United States is closely tied to land ownership.

Land ownership

There are four main types of land owners: citizens and corporations; the federal government; state and local governments; and Native American tribes and individuals. There are two types of owners for submerged lands under the ocean: states and the federal government.

Private lands

Private lands are owned by private citizens or corporations.

Federal lands

Federal lands are owned by or under jurisdiction of the federal government, including:
  • Public domain lands ceded to the U.S. by treaty, purchase, or conquest
  • Acquired lands purchased by, given to, exchanged with, or transferred through condemnation proceedings to the federal government
  • Military acquired lands purchased by the federal government under military acquisition laws
  • Outer Continental Shelf submerged lands located farther than three miles off a state’s coastline, or three marine leagues into the Gulf of Mexico off of Texas and Western Florida

State and local lands

State and local lands are owned by state or local governments, including:
  • Lands owned by a particular state
  • State submerged lands under the ocean stretching from a state’s coast to three miles out into the ocean, or in the case of Texas and western Florida, from the coast out to three marine leagues into the Gulf of Mexico
  • Lands owned by a local government, such as a county

Native American lands

Native American lands include:
  • Tribal lands held in trust by the federal government for a tribe’s use
  • Allotments held in trust by the federal government for individual Native American use
  • Alaska Native Corporation lands in Alaska, held by 12 regional Alaska Native Corporations that received rights to some surface lands, as well as rights to natural resources below the surface. Along with these 12 regional Alaska Native Corporations, certain village-level Alaska Native Corporations hold additional surface land rights.

Natural resource ownership

Private individuals and corporations, as well as federal, state, local, and tribal governments, can own both land and the oil, gas, coal, and other minerals found below the surface. In fact, widespread private ownership of these resources makes the U.S. different from nearly every other country in which these resources simply belong to the national government.
Natural resource ownership has historical roots in the 19th century, when the federal government passed homestead and development acts to encourage settlement in the West. These acts, along with the General Mining Law of 1872, allowed for federal public domain lands, and the natural resources within them, to pass to private ownership. Starting in the 20th century, the U.S. passed legislation that began to withdraw both specific natural resources and eventually public domain lands from settlement and other development, preserving these lands and natural resources in federal ownership today.

Split ownership

Sometimes the land’s surface owner is different from the owner of the minerals in the ground below. The party that owns the land’s surface has surface rights, while the party that owns the natural resources in the ground has subsurface rights. When ownership is divided in this way, it is referred to as a split estate. There are 57 million acres of land in the U.S. where the federal government owns oil, gas, coal, and other minerals below the surface, but another party, mostly citizens or corporations, owns the surface land above. Land and mineral ownership can become quite complicated. Often, a combination of private landholders, the federal government, a state government, or Native American tribes own the span of a single mine or field.
When it comes to the natural resources found off the coast, the federal government and state governments split ownership. In general, states have primary authority and natural resource ownership in the three-mile area extending outward from their coasts. The federal government owns oil, gas, and minerals located in the submerged lands on the Outer Continental Shelf, which extend from the states’ offshore boundaries out to at least 200 nautical miles from the shore.