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What is Right-of-Way?

A right-of-way allows someone to pass over, under, or through another person’s property or leasehold interest for a specific reason.

With a right-of-way (ROW), an individual or a group can enter onto the land or leasehold of another individual or group for a particular purpose. 

A “grant of easement” for ROW defines the purpose, type, extent, use, width, length, and duration of the ROW. 

A ROW shouldn’t be considered an alternative form of land ownership. The title to the property will remain with the landowner, but a granted ROW will be recorded and encumbered on the title. 

You don’t need a ROW for commonplace activities like driving on public highways or roads. 

However, you will need a ROW for major infrastructure projects that could cause significant disturbance or damage to public or trust lands like laying railroad tracks or creating access roads.

Rights-of-Way on Tribal Trust Land 

Two major components of the federal government’s trust responsibility to Tribes are the conservation and protection of Indian trust lands and Tribal sovereignty. 

Upholding these protections is the primary responsibility of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). 

The ROW on Indian Land final rule aims to further promote Tribal self-governance by directing BIA to defer to Native owners in their land determinations including which rights-of-way to grant and how much compensation is reasonable. 

Regulations require that compensation for Indian landowners meets fair market value; there is no established maximum level of compensation for Tribally owned land. 

Rights-of-Way on Trust and Restricted Fee Lands

Trust land, where the legal title is held by the federal government in trust for a Tribe or for individual Indian owners (allotment), is the most common form of land ownership in Indian Country. 

However, restricted land, where the title is held by a Tribe or an individual Native landowner, is also subject to federal laws and ROW on such lands must receive approval from BIA.

Development Activities Eligible for Rights-of-Way

BIA approves Grants of Easement for ROWs for several types of infrastructure projects: 

  • Railroads 
  • Public roads and highways 
  • Access roads 
  • Service roads and trails  
  • Public and community water lines 
  • Public sanitary and storm sewer lines 
  • Water control and use projects 
  • Oil and gas pipelines 
  • Electric transmission and distribution systems 
  • Telecommunications, broadband, and fiber optics 
  • Navigation hazard easements 
  • Conservation easements

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