Federal Public Lands & Rockhounding
Federally Managed Public Lands
The federal government owns an astonishing amount of real property. In fact, West of the 100th meridian, the federal government owns the majority of the real property. The BLM alone manages over 245,000,000 surface acres. The USFS manages an additional 190,00,000 acres.
Some of this property is open to rockhounding subject to certain terms and conditions. Before heading out to rockhound on federal property, however, you should understand the different categories of federal property and the rules relevant to such categories. Keep in mind, however, that certain properties may have additional restrictions.
Is Rockhounding Permissible?
Generally speaking, whether rockhounding is permissible on federal property depends on three things.
- First, what type of public land (more precisely, the management regime pertaining to the public land). For example, rockhounding is prohibited in national parks (e.g., Yellowstone National Park) but is allowed in some national forests.
- Second, what type of specimen - e.g., rocks, gemstones, meteorites, invertebrate fossils, vertebrate fossils, petrified wood, etc.
- Third, what type of rockhounding. This part, is very complicated. The rules vary wildly depending upon the type of rockhounding at issue - e.g., simple surface rock collecting, digging, gold panning, mechanized rock collecting, etc.
Generally speaking, rockhounding by children and their families is permissible on only a couple of categories of federal property. Even in these categories, however, there are site-specific prohibitions and restrictions, additional terms and conditions, and complicated rules and exceptions. Understanding the various categories of federal ownership, however, helps set the table to understand the rules.
Types of Federally Managed Public Lands
Federal property is managed by a variety of federal departments, agencies, and organizations. These include:
- U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)
- U.S. Forest Service (USFS)
- U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI)
- Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
- National Park Service
- Fish and Wildlife Service (F&WS)
- Bureau of Reclamation
- U.S. Department of Defense (DOD)
- U.S. Department of Energy
- U.S. Department of Transportation
- Federal Aviation Administration
Generally speaking, as explained below, recreational rockhounding is more likely to be permissible on public lands managed by two federal agencies: the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). These agencies manage enormous amounts of public lands in the United States. See the Rockhounding Law pages for BLM and USFS.
Similarly, recreational rockhounding usually is prohibited on most other federal public lands including, for example:
- Offices - e.g., White House; Federal agency buildings & campuses; GSA-managed properties
- Department of Defense properties - e.g., Military bases; Firing and bombing ranges; cemeteries
- Department of Energy properties - e.g., Alamogordo, Hanford Nuclear Reservation; Idaho facilities
- Department of Transportation properties - e.g., Interstate highways, tunnels
- Bureau of Reclamation properties - e.g., Dams
- Corps of Engineers properties - e.g., Canals
- Correctional Facilities
- National Parks - e.g., Yellowstone National Park
- National Monuments - e.g., John Day Fossil Beds
- National Wildlife Refuges - e.g., Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge
- Wilderness Areas
- Indian Sacred Sites
- Historic Districts & Historic Sites
- National Scenic Areas - e.g., Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area
This section briefly identified federal properties on which rockhounding is prohibited. Although there may be exceptions for scientific or educational collection by permit or special use permit, this section refers to rockhounding by children and their families. Accordingly, that is not scientific or educational collection under applicable law; Rather, it is amateur or hobby collecting. It's still fun. But, some places are off limits.
Bureau of Reclamation (BOR)
The Bureau of Reclamation prohibits rockhounding. Pursuant to a permit, collection is allowed for scientific purposes only.
Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS)
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service generally prohibits rockhounding. Pursuant to a special use permit, collection is allowed for scientific or educational purposes only. Note, there are a small number of National Wildlife Refuges where recreational rockhounding may be allowed.
The National Park Service prohibits rockhounding and fossil collecting in National Parks. Pursuant to a permit, collection is allowed for scientific purposes only.
Tribal lands are not public lands. Certain tribal lands are managed by the federal government through the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) within the Department of the Interior. Rockhounding on Indian lands requires permission from the tribe or individual owner. Keep in mind, however, that tribal boundaries often include non-tribal inholdings.
The Best Ever Rockhounding Law Summary
Gator Girl Rocks’ Best Ever Guides includes a brief general summary of federal rockhounding law for recreational rockhounders - i.e., children and their families who enjoy rockhounding. Commercial collection, of course, is subject to different rules. In addition, as noted above, this area of the law is a bit complicated as well as vague. Accordingly, the general rules can vary. For example, specific areas may be designated with different regulations. Before collecting, check with the local resource management officials to assurance compliance.