BLM-Managed Public Lands & Rockhounding

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Overview - Federal Lands Managed by BLM
Generally speaking, most BLM-managed public lands are open to recreational rockhounding.  There are some exceptions.  Certain lands that are withdrawn or reserved for specific purposes other than rockhounding are off limits to rockhounding.  These areas include the following:

  • Outstanding Natural Areas
  • Areas of Critical Environmental Concern
  • Recreation Sites
  • National Historic Sites

Accordingly, rockhounders should check - in advance - with the applicable BLM district.

  In addition, certain lands may be subject to mining claims that may preclude certain rockhounding activities.

On BLM lands that are open to rockhounding, there are collecting and other restrictions.  A BLM permit may be needed depending on the amount of material you collect, how you collect it, where or when you collect, and whether it is used commercially.

Generally speaking, rockhounders may collect rocks, minerals, semiprecious gemstones, petrified wood, and common plant and invertebrate fossils (e.g., shellfish, corals, trilobites, crinoids) on BLM-managed public lands without charge or permit as long as:

  • The specimens are for personal use
  • The specimens are not collected for commercial purposes or bartered to commercial dealers
  • You only collect small, non-commercial, reasonable amounts of specimens
  • Collection does not occur in developed recreation sites or areas, unless designated as a rockhounding area by BLM
  • Collection is not prohibited or restricted and posted
  • You limit collecting tools to hand tools such as shovels and picks
  • Collection, excavation, or removal is not aided with motorized or mechanical devices, including heavy equipment or explosives.  Metal detectors often times are acceptable, but there are exceptions (e.g., San Pedro National Conservation Area)


Specially Designated Rockhounding Sites
In addition to other rockhounding opportunities on BLM-managed public lands, the BLM has certain specially designated rockhounding areas.  These areas include:

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Me at the Round Mountain Rockhound Area in 2007

  • Arizona:  Round Mountain Rockhound Area (Safford District)
  • Arizona:  Black Hills Rockhound Area (Safford District)
  • Oregon:  Central Oregon
  • Washington:  Saddle Mountain (central Washington)

 Collection Limits:  Rocks & Minerals
Recreational rockhounders often may collect – for personal use - 'reasonable amounts,' ’reasonable quantities,’ or ‘limited quantities’ of rocks and minerals from BLM-managed public lands without a permit.

images - rock hammer

There is no BLM-wide defined quantity ‘safe harbor’ for collecting.  In some areas, the petrified wood quantity is used, in other areas a descriptive volume is used – e.g., not more than can be carried in a backpack; what can fit in your trunk; a ten gallon bucket; etc.  A few areas use a yearly weight limit.

A permit is required for more than a reasonable amount.

There are different collection limits for petrified wood.

Collection Limits:  Petrified Wood
See Petrified Wood page.

Collection Limits:  Fossils
See Fossils page.  

Collection Methods:
Rockhounders are allowed to collect specimens found on the ground or beneath the surface if the excavation is done by hand (e.g., pick, shovel, etc.).  Excavating with explosives or mechanical equipment (e.g., backhoe, trencher, auger, bulldozer, etc.) is prohibited.

Important Prohibitions & Restrictions
There are a variety of important prohibitions and restrictions.  These include:

  • Explosives & Mechanized Equipment - Excavating with explosives or mechanical equipment (e.g., backhoe, trencher, auger, bulldozer, etc.) is prohibited.
  • Commercial Use and Sales or Bartering - The material must be for your personal use only.  It may not be sold or bartered to commercial dealers or any other person.
  • Large Specimens - Special permits are required for any specimen greater than 250 pounds.
  • Stockpiles - Taking rock from stockpiles is not allowed (this rock often is used to surface roads).
  • Withdrawn Lands & Special Designation Areas 
- Some BLM lands are withdrawn or reserved for certain purposes such as outstanding natural areas, research natural areas, recreation sites, national historic sites, etc.  Rockhounding is prohibited in those areas that are managed under such special designation.
  • Mining Claims - Some lands are not open to collecting due to the presence of mining claims.
  • Artifacts 
- Artifacts, ancient or historical, may not be collected without a permit. This includes petroglyphs, human remains, dwellings, and artifacts of Native American cultures; arrowheads or flakes; pottery or potsherds; mats; rock art; old bottles or pieces of equipment and buildings. These items are part of our national heritage and scientists are still learning much from them.
  • Human Burial Remains - This should go without saying, but ... if you read a newspaper, you may start to wonder about some folks.  Human burial remains on both public and private land are protected by federal and state law from being collected.
  • Temporary Restrictions - e.g., Fire Closures
- Some lands may be closed to rockhounding because of fire or vehicle use restrictions.
  • ESA & Other Environmental Restrictions - Some lands may be closed to rockhounding because of Endangered Species Act restrictions.  These closures should be evaluated.  On occasion, resources managers succumb to pressure by advocacy groups to lock up public lands purportedly to protect certain species that, albeit temporarily, have a lobby group.  The irony, of course, is that regardless of what any and every self-proclaimed 'environmental' activist does, all species will go extinct.  Geologists, paleontologists, and even junior rockhounders have understood this inconvenient truth for generations.  In fact, the fossil beds make the issue beyond debate among reasonably informed people.

Mining Claims - 1872 Mining Law

Mining claims can create a lot of confusion.  It is not uncommon to find people who believe they have a lawful mining claim on public lands (when, in fact, they failed to perfect the mining claim in the first place or maintain it).  Further, some people with valid mining claims misunderstand the scope of the claim.  
As a general rule, rockhounders shouldn't pick a fight in the field.  People can be very emotional over property conflicts.  The better course of action, is to find a different rockhounding site but follow up with the local BLM office and legal counsel.
  Where, however, there is a valid mining claim, the claimant's consent will be required to collect covered minerals.  Most mining claims usually can be identified in the field by claim posts or markers, but you should contact a local BLM office to find out which areas have mining claims.
  It is illegal for a mining claimant to charge fees to the public for recreational use of a mining claim, such as rock collecting.

Material such as agate, chert, jasper, petrified wood, obsidian, cinders and other volcanic products are not considered locatable under the 1872 Mining Law.  Most commonly collected rocks and minerals are not subject to mining claim location even though people occasionally stake claims for these minerals anyway.  The mere fact that some stones may be cut and polished does not give them a distinct or special value to make them locatable.  Accordingly, mining claimants lawfully cannot preclude rockhounders from collecting such materials.

Severed Minerals
In some cases, the federal government will own the surface estate and a third party (e.g., private party, state/local government, etc.) will own the severed mineral rights.  This can create misunderstandings - typically by the severed mineral owner. 
In cases where the real property has been split, the scope - if any - of the severed mineral estate will depend upon the mineral reservation or mineral grant that created the estate.  Most commonly, such mineral estates include hydrocarbons and certain precious minerals.  Where the parties were sophisticated, the scope of the mineral reservation may be broader.  Very rarely, however, will a mineral reservation include any material on the surface regardless of its value.  Mineral estate owners who attempt to preclude rockhounders from surface collection may be subject to civil and criminal enforcement.
In addition, in some states, a mineral reservation can be lost for nonuse and/or non-payment of taxes.

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