Overview - The Law Pertaining to Rockhounding

In the United States, the law pertaining to rockhounding - i.e., collecting rocks, gemstones, minerals, fossils, meteorites, and artifacts is extremely complicated.  Generally speaking, however, the applicable law depends upon four critical facts:

  1. Ownership of the property - where the collecting occurs;  
  2. The type of material to be collected - e.g., rocks (such as obsidian), gemstones (such as sapphires, garnets, sunstones, agates, etc.), minerals (such as gold, silver, copper, etc.), petrified wood, fossils (plant, invertebrate, vertebrate, and trace), meteorites, etc.;
  3. The manner of collecting - e.g., is it surface collecting, hand tools, digging, mechanized efforts, blasting; and
  4. What type of person you happen to be.  Seriously.  That does matter.    


Real Property Ownership
The property ownership question is pretty easy.  In America, all real property belongs to someone (and, increasingly, more than one person - especially if you consider severed minerals).

Generally speaking, there are two categories:  Private Property and Public Property.  Some may quibble that certain property ownership has elements of both (e.g., tribal trust lands; taxpayer subsidized private conservation easements, etc.), but, in regard to rockhounding, these two categories will suffice.


Sign in Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming) near the famous obsidian cliffs

  • Private Property – Rockhounding on private property is easy.  If you own the property or have permission to be there (e.g., fee access; permit; prescriptive use; etc.), you can engage in rockhounding. 
  • Public Property – Rockhounding on public property, however, is more complicated.  Certainly, if you're not an idiot, you wouldn't expect that, just because the property is publicly owned, you could start rockhounding in the middle of the White House lawn or in a city park.  On other hand, if self-proclaimed 'environmentalists' can lock up millions of acres of public property essentially for an exclusive wilderness hiking experience for a ridiculously tiny number of souls fortunate enough to have sufficient treasure and free time to engage in extended wilderness 'experiences,' certainly there must be room in this country for ordinary children and their families to experience the outdoors and collect some rocks.  Good news.  There is.  There is not a lot of opportunity and most areas are pretty remote, but, there are places where it is not illegal to collect some rocks and some fossils on public land. 

Many public properties, however, are off limits to rockhounding.  Examples include:  National Parks, National Monuments, and nearly all National Wildlife Refuges.

The Type of Material
When it comes to the type of material to be collected, the law varies wildly and there is no uniform rule.  For example, some federal lands prohibit all collecting - rocks, minerals, gemstones, fossils, petrified wood, etc.  On the other land, certain federal lands are open to rock collecting or to collecting a prescribed number of pounds of petrified wood, or certain fossils depending on whether they are invertebrate or vertebrate fossils.  
Similarly, state law varies.

The Manner of Collection
The manner of collection often is regulated.  On private property, generally speaking, the method of collection is up to the property owner.  On public property where rockhounding is permissible, oftentimes there are policies pertaining to collection methods.  Commonly, collection is limited to surface collecting or nonmechanized methods such as hand tools.  And, although common sense should dictate this anyway, surface improvements (e.g., roads, buildings) and trees must not be damaged and the surface must be restored.

Who You Happen To Be
The type of material or specimens that you may collect will depend upon your status.  If, for example, you are a scientist, you will be able to collect more types of materials and specimens than if you are not.  Similarly, if your activities are being conducted pursuant to a permit, you again will have greater latitude.
  That said, if the property belongs to you, you have no legal obligation to provide access to scientists to engage in recovery or collection on your private property. 

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