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What is Public Land?

By C. Mitchell
Updated May 16, 2024
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Public land, also known as land in the public domain, is land that is owned and maintained by a government. Public lands in most countries are usually designated as undeveloped, and are preserved by the government for outdoor recreation and the conservation of nature. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, however, public lands were frequently sold or granted to individuals for personal use and homesteading. Much of the land in Canada, the United States, and Australia was at one time public land that the was transferred to individual settlers. Modern-day public lands are usually protected by national public lands laws that restrict and designate how the land may be used and exploited.

All countries contain land that is owned and operated exclusively by the government in accordance with national real property law. Some of this land is used for government purposes, some parcels are sold or leased, but some is intentionally left open. The term “public land” refers to these open spaces, which can include national parks, wildlife preserves, and other undeveloped tracts and parcels. It is often said that public land is land that the government holds in trust for its citizens.

At one time, public land sales and public land grants were the means through which individuals obtained land. This was particularly true of the settlements of the United States, Canada, and Australia. The British government, referred to as “the Crown,” owned these lands, and partitioned acreages out to settlers and colonists. When the United States gained independence, it assumed ownership of all Crown properties, but continued granting and selling it for personal, business, or educational use. Most state universities today sit on land that was at one time public land granted for the express purpose of promoting higher education.

Public lands that remain are, by their very definition, public, but use of them is usually tightly controlled. Many public lands are open for citizens and visitors to explore and enjoy. Hiking, camping, and boating are all popular activities on some public lands, but on others, use of motor vehicles or overnight stays are prohibited.

One of the biggest controversies surrounding the use of public lands arises when public lands contain valuable resources like water, oil, or minerals. For instance, in the United States much of the state of Alaska is held as public land. Alaska’s land is rich with oil, but unless the government specifically allows oil drilling there, this particular benefit will go unrealized. The U.S. government has granted limited use contracts to several oil rigging companies to permit use of the land for certain drilling activities.

In the U.S., public land grants and use enforcement are handled by federal agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The BLM conducts regular surveys of public lands, and manages their upkeep and preservation. Many citizen organizations are also active in preserving and promoting public land. Groups often form to clean up and help maintain public lands on the U.S.’s “National Public Lands Day,” usually celebrated on the last Saturday in September.

Public lands are different from the U.S. concept of federal enclaves. Federal enclaves are parcels of land that the United States government excises from states for its own purposes. Military bases are examples of federal enclaves, because they sit on land within a state, but they are in fact federal property. The U.S. capital, the District of Columbia, is also a federal enclave, carved out of land between the states of Maryland and Virginia. While federal enclaves may contain open spaces, those spaces are not public lands.

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