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What is Natural Resources Law?

Definition of Natural Resources Law

Natural resources law governs how people can use the parts of the environment that have some economic or societal benefit. Generally, these benefits include air or wind, light, water, soil and plants, animals that occupy the land, and underground minerals or oil.

The first major task natural resources law performs is to decide who has ownership rights to the resources on the land. The landowner typically has these rights, particularly in regard to soil, plants, light, wind, and animals that are present on the land at the time of capture. However, there are many instances where this is not the case, and these will vary from state to state or town to town. A landowner may technically "own" the trees on her land, for example, but due to environmental concerns, may be legally prohibited from removing the trees. Natural resources law also governs how people may extract the benefit from the natural resource. Wind by itself is not very useful, but it is important for maintaining air quality and for providing energy. Technically, landowners may have rights to the wind and air around their house, but probably would not be allowed to erect a windmill on their property because it would become a nuisance to the neighbors.

These types of decisions are very important to resources that are scarce in a particular region, such as oil and water. States in wet climates often allow private landowners to own water that touches their land; whereas arid states may decide that no water can be privately owned and that all water should be owned by the public. Once a public organization has the rights to water, natural resources law helps policy makers decide who may use the water.

Natural resources law also helps define how natural resources may be bought or sold. Once someone has rights to a resource, she may generally sell those rights in any manner she chooses, although there are exceptions for some public policy initiatives.

Terms to Know

Practice Area Notes

Natural resources lawyers are frequently employed by businesses such as energy companies, who are in the business of gathering natural resources and converting them into energy. Governments also hire natural resource lawyers to defend the public's right to access resources.

Private landowners may also use natural resource laws to establish or protect their right to use natural resources on their property. However, few lawyers who cater to individuals exclusively practice natural resources law. It is much more likely that local real estate attorneys would have the expertise and ability to assist an individual with a question about natural resources law.

Related Practice Areas

  • Land Use Law: Many land use restrictions are designed to protect natural resources.
  • Energy Law: Energy law concerns who may access which sources of energy, and natural resources frequently represent a source of energy.
  • Environmental Law: Environmental lawyers attempt to protect the environment by reducing pollution and preventing the uncontrolled depletion of natural resources.
  • Real Estate: Natural resource laws affect what landowners may and may not do with their property.

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