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Rock Collecting on Public Land: Laws and Regulations

Rock Collecting on Public Land: Laws and Regulations
The sign at the entrance of Yellowstone National Park

We’ve all been there. You’re out enjoying the wilderness or a national park and an interesting rock catches your eye. What a great token it would make to remember your trip by! But as you bend to pick it up that nagging question pops up in the back of your mind: Am I allowed to take rocks from public land?

The legality of rock, mineral, and fossil collecting on public land depends largely on which of four federal agencies owns it. In most cases, the collection of rocks, minerals, and fossils is not permitted. However, some types of public land do allow for collecting with certain limitations.

Determining which type of public land you’re on and which government agency owns it is the first step in figuring out if rock collecting is allowed. I’ll dig into each type of public land and the specific laws and regulations that describe if rockhounding is permissible and, if so, what restrictions there are.

Rockhounding on Public Lands

When it comes to rock, mineral, and fossil collecting, it is absolutely imperative that you have permission from the land owner to collect any samples – no matter how small or how few. The default assumption should always be that you are not allowed to collect specimens on that land unless you have permission to do so. This doesn’t just apply to private land – it applies to the millions of acres of public land in the United States as well.

In the U.S. there are four major federal agencies that manage approximately 640 million acres owned by the U.S. government:

In addition to that, there are 14 million acres of state parks and countless local parks. Together, they make up over 28% of all the land in the United States

That’s a lot of land available for some potential rockhounding! Those millions of acres are divided up into 15 major types – 13 federal land types plus state and local parks.

In general, recreational rockhounding for your own personal collection is much more likely to be legal on lands operated by the BLM and the USFS than the NPS and USFWS. This is because the types of land they manage tend to be intended for the general use of the public, while lands such as National Parks are specifically designated as areas that need to be protected from damage.

I’ll break down the legal status of rock, mineral, and fossil collecting for each type of public land so that no matter where you are you’ll know what the regulations say.

National Parks

In general, the collecting of any rocks, minerals, fossils, or other specimens is prohibited in National Parks. The only exceptions are in a select few Alaska park units where limited collection by hand is permitted. Another exception is approved scientific research which requires a permit to be obtained beforehand.

It’s easy to get frustrated with the National Park System for disallowing the collection of rocks and other specimens, but keep in mind their mission. They have been tasked with protecting some of the most unique and special areas of our country, and a big part of what makes them special is the geology. If everyone started taking pieces of the parks home with them, their natural beauty would degrade in a hurry.

Managed By

National Park System

Regulations

“Collecting, rockhounding, and gold panning of rocks, minerals, and paleontological specimens, for either recreational or educational purposes is generally prohibited in all units of the National Park System. Violators of this prohibition are subject to criminal penalties.”

Click for link to regulations

It’s not just the collection of specimens that’s banned in National Parks. There are quite a few tangentially related activities that are considered illegal (outside link), including using a metal detector, throwing rocks down hillsides, and digging for specimens.

Exceptions & Details

Aside from the scientific research permit, the only exception to the rockhounding rule in National Parks is “in some Alaska parks (not Klondike Gold Rush, Sitka, Denali, Glacier Bay, and Katmai) by non-disturbing methods (e.g., no pickaxes), which can be stopped by superintendent if collection causes significant adverse effects on park resources and visitor enjoyment.”

National Forests

National Forests are one of your best bets if you’re looking to do some rock collecting. The USFS generally allows for personal rock, mineral, and fossil collecting without permits. There are 154 National Forests and 20 Grasslands operated by the USFS, which leaves a lot of ground for rockhounds to cover.

There are some restrictions, however. The USFS does making some exceptions about the type of material you can collect (including historical artifacts and meteorites) as well as the scope and method of your operations. There are also certain places where collecting may not be allowed, such as private mining claims.

In many of these National Forests there are already well-known and established mining locations, but you aren’t restricted to just those. You can look just about anywhere on USFS for your own specimens! Gold panning is also permitted and is a very popular activity in a lot of USFS locations.

Managed By

US Forest Service

Regulations

“Limited collection of rocks and minerals for personal use is allowed on most National Forest System lands. These materials may be collected without a permit provided the collecting is for personal, hobby, and noncommercial use.”

Click for link to regulations

Exceptions & Details

Rock, mineral, and fossil collecting on USFS land is legal, but it does not come without restrictions. These exceptions generally pertain to where, what, how, and how much material you’re collecting.

  • Mining Claims: There are some privately owned mining claims on USFS land from which you cannot collect without the express permission of the claim owner. The local USFS office will have a list of these claims and their locations.
  • Wilderness Areas: There are some special areas that the USFS has designated as too sensitive for this type of activity.
  • What You Collect: You may not collect any items of historical or archaeological importance, meteorites, or petrified wood.
  • Amount of Material: The USFS allows for a reasonable amount of collected material, which they loosely define as anything around 10 pounds or less.

Click for link to exceptions

National Wildlife Refuges

Rockhounding and collecting minerals or fossils in a National Wildlife Refuge is almost universally prohibited. These areas are designed to protect fish, wildlife, and their habitats while making them accessible for people to enjoy. Understandably, the USFWS has declared that it is illegal for anyone to take geological specimens from these areas since it could adversely affect the wildlife there.

Managed By

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Regulations

“The destruction, injury, defacement, disturbance, or the unauthorized removal of any public property including natural objects or private property on or from any national wildlife refuge is prohibited.”

“Prospecting, locating, or filing mining claims on national wildlife refuges is prohibited unless otherwise provided by law.”

Click for link to regulations

Exceptions & Details

After quite a bit of digging around for any exceptions to the ‘no collecting’ rule, I managed to find only one.

The Kofa National Wildlife Refuge has a designated 1.5 square mile area named Crystal Hill that is known for its quartz crystals. Only recreational rockhounding is allowed here, no digging is permitted, and you may only take 10 specimens or 10 pounds in a 12 month period.

National Conservation Areas

National Conservation Areas are managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and as such they are open for recreational rockhounding. There are 16 of these types of these areas (plus 5 very similar ones) in the U.S., most of them in the western portion of the country.

There are a couple specific areas in which specimen collecting is prohibited. And, of course, the usual BLM use restrictions regarding collecting methods, how much you collect, and specific types of finds apply to all of them.

Managed By

Bureau of Land Mangement

Regulations

“Gold and silver may be prospected for with hand tools including pans and metal detectors… Recreational panning which does not involve mechanical equipment is permitted in wilderness and wilderness study areas if it does not create surface disturbance or impair the environment.”

“Gemstones and common rock specimens may be collected for private use on unclaimed sites.

“Common invertebrate fossils such as plants, mollusks, and trilobites may be collected for personal use in reasonable quantities, but may not be bartered or sold.”

“Petrified wood may be collected up to 25 pounds plus one piece per person per day, with a maximum of 250 pounds per person per year. Permits are required for pieces over 250 pounds.”

Click for link to regulations

Exceptions & Details

While the vast majority of the land in National Conservation Areas is open for rock, mineral, and fossil collection, there are some important exceptions and restrictions to take note of:

  • Collecting specimens in the Red Rock Canyon and the Sloan Conservations Areas is not permitted
  • Do not take anything from private mining claims
  • Restricted areas and mining claim records can be viewed in BLM offices
  • You may on take ‘reasonable amounts’ of material from BLM land
  • You may not sell or trade the material you collect
  • No digging or surface disturbance is allowed
  • No vertebrate fossils may be collected
  • No cultural materials such as arrowheads and artifacts may be removed

National Monuments

National Monuments are a bit different than the previous types of areas because they aren’t managed by any single government agency. Depending on where you are, they could be managed by any of the four federal agencies we’ve previously discussed (NPS, USFS, USFWS, and BLM) and several others.

While you might think that that makes the rock collecting regulations more ambiguous or complicated, the answer here is actually quite simple. It is illegal to collect rocks, minerals, or fossils at National Monuments, with only 1 extremely specific exception. This makes sense considering the nature of National Monuments, which are designed to honor and protect areas of significant historic value.

Managed By

NPS (85), USFS (13), USFWS (9), BLM (28)

Regulations

The specific regulations depend on the service that manages the National Monument and in many cases the specific monument itself, being too numerous to list here. But, as some examples:

  • BLM – “No collecting is allowed in BLM managed National Monuments” (link)
  • USFWS – “All collecting is prohibited, including antlers, bones, rocks, artifacts and plant life.” (link)
Exceptions & Details
  • NPS – Pipestone National Monument allows for Native Americans to collect catlinite (red pipestone) (link).
  • USFS – I could find no exceptions which would allow for rockhounding on a USFS managed National Monument
  • USFWS – I could find no exceptions which would allow for rockhounding on a USFWS managed National Monument
  • BLM – I could find no exceptions which would allow for rockhounding on a BLM managed National Monument

National Historic Sites

National Historic Sites are almost universally managed by the NPS, with the lone exception of the Grey Towers National Historic Site which is operated by the USFS. These areas are intended to preserve or reflect the appearance of a location during its time of greatest historical significance.

National Historic Sites vary in their size and scope depending on what they are protecting – some sites are tasked with preserving more than one significant historical event or persons. Because of the historical significance of these locations, no collecting of any kind is allowed, with no exceptions.

Managed By

NPS

Regulations

Except as otherwise provided in this chapter, the following is prohibited:

Possessing, destroying, injuring, defacing, removing, digging, or disturbing from its natural state:

  • Nonfossilized and fossilized paleontological specimens, cultural or archeological resources, or the parts thereof.
  • Mineral resource or cave formation or the parts thereof.

Clink for link to regulations

Regulations “prohibits possessing, destroying, disturbing mineral resources…in park units.”

Click for link to regulations

Exceptions & Details

I could find no exceptions to these regulations. Rock, mineral, and fossil collecting is not legal on any National Historic Site.

National Recreation Areas

Rockhounding laws in National Recreation Areas can be confusing because these areas can be managed by any one of 3 federal agencies: the NPS, BLM, and USFS. If and how you can collect rocks, minerals, and fossils will depend on which agency manages the location you’re at, and in some cases the rules will vary by site even within the same agency.

If you’re on NPS land you are out of luck – rockhounding is not permitted at all, with one exception (see below).

If you’re on BLM land, then you can likely collect samples as long as the area isn’t developed. Check with the local BLM office if you have any doubts.

For USFS managed National Recreation Areas, the same rules apply as for National Forests. You may collect rocks, minerals, and fossils with certain limitations.

Managed By

NPS, BLM , and USFS

Regulations
  • NPS – “Collecting, rockhounding, and gold panning of rocks, minerals, and paleontological specimens, for either recreational or educational purposes is generally prohibited in all units of the National Park System. Violators of this prohibition are subject to criminal penalties.” (link)
  • BLM – “Rocks, minerals, and semiprecious gemstones may be collected on public lands managed by the BLM without charge or permit as long as… collection does not occur in developed recreation sites or areas, unless designated as a rockhounding area by BLM.” (link)
  • USFS – “Limited collection of rocks and minerals for personal use is allowed on most National Forest System lands. These materials may be collected without a permit provided the collecting is for personal, hobby, and noncommercial use.” (link)
Exceptions & Details
  • NPS – The Whiskeytown Recreation Area allows for recreational gold panning
  • BLM – The regulations state that certain areas of developed recreation areas or off limits to rockhounding. If you’re on undeveloped land away from people then you’re likely okay, but check with your local BLM office.
  • USFS – I could find no special exceptions for National Recreation Areas, so it appears that they fall completely under the same general rockhounding rules as National Forests. The usual limitations of how much you may collect, the method of collection, and restrictions on mining claims still apply.

National Memorials

National Memorials are owned by the National Park Service, and as such come with all of the usual restrictions of NPS land. Rock, mineral, and fossil collecting is not allowed at National Memorials. Given the nature of these sites I certainly don’t think that’s unreasonable – we should treat these areas with the respect they deserve and leave everything as it is.

Managed By

NPS

Regulations

“Except as otherwise provided…, the following is prohibited:

Possessing, destroying, injuring, defacing, removing, digging, or disturbing from its natural state:

  • Nonfossilized and fossilized paleontological specimens, cultural or archeological resources, or the parts thereof.
  • Mineral resource or cave formation or the parts thereof.”

Clink for link to regulations

Regulations “prohibits possessing, destroying, disturbing mineral resources…in park units.”

Click for link to regulations

Exceptions & Details

I could find no exceptions to these regulations. Rock, mineral, and fossil collecting is not legal on any National Memorial Site.

National Battlefields

The term ‘National Battlefield’ actually encompasses four sub-categories of federal land: National Military Parks, National Battlefields, National Battlefield Parks, and National Battlefield Sites. That may seem pedantic, but I just want to clarify that for anyone reading this and wondering if they are the same thing.

All National Battlefields are owned by the National Park Service, and as such come with all of the usual restrictions of NPS land. Rock, mineral, and fossil collecting is not allowed at National Battlefields. Given the nature of these sites I certainly don’t think that’s unreasonable – we should treat these areas with the respect they deserve and leave everything as it is.

Managed By

NPS

Regulations

“Except as otherwise provided…, the following is prohibited:

Possessing, destroying, injuring, defacing, removing, digging, or disturbing from its natural state:

  • Nonfossilized and fossilized paleontological specimens, cultural or archeological resources, or the parts thereof.
  • Mineral resource or cave formation or the parts thereof.”

Clink for link to regulations

Regulations “prohibits possessing, destroying, disturbing mineral resources…in park units.”

Click for link to regulations

Exceptions & Details

I could find no exceptions to these regulations. Rock, mineral, and fossil collecting is not legal on any National Battlefield Site.

National Wildernesses

National Wildernesses are some of the most highly protected areas of land in the entire U.S. They can be managed by any of the four major federal land management agencies, but in all cases, National Wildernesses are off-limits to rockhounding.

National Wilderness Areas are often portions of larger public land, so it’s important to know exactly where you are and where the increased protections begin. For example, most BLM land is open for rockhounding but if you stray into the wrong area you may not be legally allowed to collect there.

Managed By

NPS, USFS, USFWS, BLM

Regulations
  • NPS – “Except as otherwise provided…, the following is prohibited: Possessing, destroying, injuring, defacing, removing, digging, or disturbing from its natural state: 1) Nonfossilized and fossilized paleontological specimens, cultural or archeological resources, or the parts thereof. 2) Mineral resource or cave formation or the parts thereof.” (link)
  • USFS – “Collecting rock is not allowed in… Wilderness Areas” (link)
  • USFWS – Regulations prohibit the extraction of common variety minerals… in wilderness areas, recommended wilderness, and proposed wilderness. (link)
  • BLM – “Exceptions (to permissible rockhounding) include specifically… wilderness areas…” (link)
Exceptions & Details

I could find no exceptions to these regulations for any National Wildernesses.

National Wild & Scenic Rivers

National Wild & Scenic Rivers are a special designation of public land that preserves rivers and the surrounding land in their natural state. They can be managed by any one of the four major federal land management agencies.

In general, rockhounding is permitted on National Wild & Scenic Rivers that are managed by BLM and the USFS, but not permitted on rivers managed by the NPS and USFWS. This is in line with the general policies of each of these respective agencies.

Managed By

NPS, USFS, USFWS, BLM

Regulations

“Non-commercial mineral collecting for recreational purposes (e.g., hobby collecting, rock-hounding, gold panning, sluicing, or dredging) may be authorized by the Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forest Service depending on the amounts collected, size and scale of activity, resource values impacted, and river management objectives. This collecting is subject to state, local and other federal regulations. The National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) generally prohibit both commercial and non-commercial locatable mineral collecting (subject to valid existing rights). For refuges in Alaska, the FWS under 50 CFR 36.31(b) allows surface collection by hand of gold (including handheld gold pans) for recreational use only; however, collection involving surface disturbance (e.g., the use of shovels, pick axes, sluicing or dredging) is prohibited.”

Click for link to regulations

Details & Exceptions

The usual BLM and USFS restrictions around quantities, extraction methods, and private mineral claims still apply here. Rivers managed by the USFWS in Alaska allow for recreational panning for gold by hand. I could find no exceptions for NPS-managed rivers.

National Seashores & Lakeshores

There are 10 National Seashores in the U.S., all but one of which are on the Atlantic Coast (the exception being Point Reyes in California). There are also three National Seashores, all of which are on the Great Lakes. All 13 of these sites are managed by the NPS, and therefore the rockhounding laws governing them are simple and strict. You are not allowed to collect rocks, minerals, or fossils on National Seashores & Lakeshores.

Managed By

NPS

Regulations

“Collecting, rockhounding, and gold panning of rocks, minerals, and paleontological specimens, for either recreational or educational purposes is generally prohibited in all units of the National Park System. Violators of this prohibition are subject to criminal penalties.”

Click for link to regulations

Details & Exceptions

I could find no exceptions to the NPS regulations concerning rockhounding at National Lakeshores & Seashores. Collecting is not permitted.

National Trails

National Trails are a relatively loose grouping of different types of protected trails which can be operated by several federal agencies, as well as state and local agencies. They often overlap and intertwine with other protected areas such as National Parks, and therefore the rockhounding laws are complicated and will vary from place to place even on the same trail.

Managed By

NPS, USFS, BLM, State & local governments (and combinations thereof)

Regulations

The regulations governing National Trails are far too complicated to cover here since they change from place to place even along the same trail. However, you can be relatively certain that any trail owned or even partly managed by the NPS will follow all of the same regulations as a National Park, and thus will not permit rockhounding (outlined below).

NPS – “Several components of the National Trails System which are administered by the Service have been designated as units of the national park system. These trails are therefore managed as national park areas and are subject to all the policies contained herein, as well as to any other requirements specified in the National Trails System Act. Other scenic, historic, connecting/side, and recreational trails designated under the National Trails System Act are in or adjacent to park units. Some of these may also be administered by the Service, though not as units of the national park system. In all cases, the Service will cooperate with other land managers, nonprofit organizations, and user groups to facilitate” (link)

Exceptions & Details

The only way to know if rockhounding in any particular location along a National Trail is to identify who manages that land and ask them directly. The trails are often co-managed by several entities, making the governing regulations even more complicated.

State Parks

State Parks are all managed by individual states, meaning that there are 50 different sets of laws and regulations when it comes to rock, mineral, and fossil collecting. This makes it difficult to know what is allowed in any given state park when it comes to rockhounding.

Luckily for you, I wrote a post that outlines the rockhounding regulations in all 50 states. This post covers every state with the specific verbiage used and links to the regulations, so you’ll have no doubt about whether or not rockhounding is permitted in your state park.

As a general rule, state parks do not allow for rock, mineral, and fossil collecting, but there are some exceptions.

City Parks

There are thousands of city parks all over the U.S., each regulated by their respective cities. The rockhounding rules will vary in each locations, but as a general rule you are not permitted to damage or remove public property. This would include, rocks, unfortunately. Check with your city to see if they allow for this type of activity in any or all of their parks.

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer and the information in this article is not intended to be legal advice. Talk to your own lawyer and to appropriate governing bodies for the final say on legal matters.