Question: Is it legal to collect arrowheads on federal public lands?
Answer: No. The law
on this issue is confusing. Worse yet,
the Internet message boards are a recipe for serious trouble.
Whether arrowhead collecting is lawful depends upon where it is done. On private property, arrowhead collecting by the property owner or anyone with permission to do so is lawful. The arrowheads belong to the property owner. On public property, more often than not, the management regimes prohibit arrowhead collecting.
On federal public property, arrowhead collecting is illegal and may be prosecuted. Despite what you may hear, there is no ‘Carter Clause’ or ‘Boy Scout Clause’ that makes it legal to collect arrowheads from federal public lands. Quite the contrary. Although the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 (ARPA) specifically excludes arrowheads found on the surface of the ground from criminal penalties under the act (provided that the arrowheads do not appear in an archeological context), surface collection still is prohibited. See 16 U.S.C. § 470ee(g).
Arrowheads are defined to be an archaeological resource) and, as such, cannot be collected by recreational rockhounders. See 16 U.S.C. § 470bb(1). Accordingly, removal of an archaeological resource is prohibited by ARPA, by BLM regulation (43 CFR § 8365.1-5(a)(1)), and is a violation of the Antiquities Act of 1906 (16 U.S.C. § 432 & § 433) and the Federal Land Policy & Management Act of 1976 (43 U.S.C. § 1733(a)) and subject to criminal penalties under those statutes (but not under ARPA). It also can be prosecuted under 16 U.S.C. § 641 as theft of government property.
Bottom line: If you remove arrowheads from public lands, you cannot be criminally prosecuted under ARPA, but you can be prosecuted under FLPMA and the Antiquities Act. Surface collected arrowheads also are subject to forfeiture. [Pre-1979 collections are not subject to forfeiture.].