Below are selected federal laws that impact rockhounding. For recreational rockhounders, one of the most useful legal resources is the Best Ever Guide titled American Rockhounding Law Summary Table 2016.
1872 Mining Law (Mining Law of 1872)
17 Stat. 91; 30 U.S.C. §§ 22-24, 26-28, 29-30, 33-35, 37, 39-42 and 47, May 10, 1872, as amended 1875, 1880, 1921, 1925, 1958, 1960 and 1993.
Provides for non-discretionary locatable minerals management. This Act authorizes and governs prospecting and mining for hardrock minerals such as gold and silver on public lands.
Lands Open to Purchase: The Act provides that all valuable mineral deposits in lands belonging to the U.S., both surveyed and unsurveyed, are free and open to exploration and purchase by U.S. citizens. The Act further provides that the lands in which the minerals are found are open to occupation and purchase by U.S. citizens.
Mining Claims: The Act provides that locators of all mining locations on a mineral vein, lode or ledge on the public domain have the exclusive right of possession and enjoyment of the surface included within the lines of their location, and of all veins, lodes and ledges throughout their entire depth. The Act sets forth the method to obtain a patent for land claimed and located for valuable deposits. The Act also provides the manner in which adverse claims are to be handled. The Act contains specific provisions relating to placer claims, including claims on all forms of deposit except veins of quartz or other rock in place.
Nonmineral Land Patents: The Act authorizes up to five acres of nonmineral land not contiguous to a vein or lode that is used by the proprietor for mining or milling to be included in a patent application for the vein or lode. The Act also authorizes applications for patents for placer claims to include nonmineral land needed for mining, milling, processing, beneficiation or other operations in connection with the claim. § 42.
Note: The Mining and Minerals Policy Act of 1970 immediately precedes the first sections of the Mining Law of 1872. The 1970 Act declares that it is the continuing policy of the federal government to foster and encourage private enterprise in: the development of economically sound and stable domestic mining, minerals, metal and mineral reclamation industries; the orderly and economic development of domestic mineral resources, reserves, and reclamation of metals and minerals to assure satisfaction of industrial, security and environmental needs; mining, mineral and metallurgical research, including the use and recycling of scrap to promote the wise and efficient use of our natural and reclaimable resources; the study and development of methods for the disposal, control and reclamation of mineral waste products, and the reclamation of mined land, so as to lessen adverse impacts of mineral extraction and processing on the physical environment that may result from mining or mineral activities. The Secretary of the Interior is responsible for carrying out this policy in administering programs under the Secretary's authority. 30 U.S.C. § 21a.
In addition to the Mining and Minerals Policy Act of 1970, code sections relating to mining claims passed at various times are scattered among the sections comprising the Mining Law of 1872.
Antiquities Act of
16 U.S.C. §§ 431-433, June 8, 1906
Prohibits the excavation, collection, or destruction of any archaeological materials (including fossils) located on lands under federal jurisdiction. The Secretaries of the Interior, Agriculture, and Army may grant permits to qualified institutions for examination of ruins, excavation of archaeological sites and gathering of objects of antiquity on lands under their respective jurisdictions. These activities must be undertaken for the benefit of reputable museums, universities, colleges or other recognized scientific or educational institutions, with a goal of increasing the knowledge of such objects. Gatherings must be made for permanent preservation in public museums.It is illegal for a person to appropriate, excavate, injure or destroy an historic or prehistoric ruin or monument, or an object of antiquity, situated on lands owned or controlled by the U.S., without permission of the Secretary of the department with jurisdiction over the lands. Violators are subject to a fine or imprisonment for not more than 90 days, or both.
Resources Protection Act of 1979 (ARPA)
P.L. 96-95, 93 Stat. 726; 16 U.S.C. §§ 470aa-470mm
Prohibits the excavation, collection or destruction of any archaeological materials (including fossils) located on lands under federal jurisdiction. ARPA authorizes penalties for illegal collections of paleontological resources. ARPA, however, applies only to paleontological resources that were found in an "archaeological context." Note: Section 12 (b) Private Collections, states: “Nothing in this chapter applies to, or requires a permit for, the collection for private purposes of any rock, coin, bullet, or minerals, as determined under uniform regulations promulgated under section 479bb(1) of this title.”
Placer Act of 1892
27 Stat. 348; 30 U.S.C. 161
Provides for mining claims on lands valuable for building stone.
Resources Protection Act of 1988 (FCRPA)
102 Stat. 4546; 16 U.S.C. §§ 4301-4310
Provides for protection and preservation of caves on Federal lands. The Federal Cave Resources Protection Act authorizes misdemeanor-level penalties for illegal collections of paleontological resources from significant caves.
Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA)
90 Stat. 2743, as amended; 43 U.S.C. §§ 1701-1782, October 21, 1976, as amended 1978, 1984, 1986, 1988, 1990-1992, 1994 and 1996.
National Forest Lands reserved from public domain may not be subject to United States mining laws. Prohibits the excavation, collection, or destruction of any archaeological materials (including fossils) located on lands under federal jurisdiction.
Act of 1920
41 Stat. 437, as amended; 30 U.S.C. 181-187, 187a-b, 188-195, 201-202, 202a, 203-208, 208-1, 208-2, 209, 211-214, 221-226, 226-2, 226-3, 227-229, 229a, 241, 251, 261-263
Provides limited discretion for management of leasable minerals on public lands.
Act for Acquired Lands
61 Stat. 913, as amended; 30 U.S.C. 351-360
Provides limited discretion for leasable mineral management on acquired lands
Act of 1947
61 Stat. 681, as amended; 30 U.S.C. 601-604
Provides for disposal of mineral materials.
Minerals Policy Act of 1970
84 Stat. 1876; 30 U.S.C. 21a
Directs the federal government to "foster and encourage private enterprise" to develop minerals "to help assure satisfaction of industrial, security and environmental needs". The Minerals Policy Act establishes the federal government's policy on mineral development and is the source of the Forest Service mission "to encourage, facilitate, and administer the orderly exploration, development, and production of mineral and energy resources on National Forest System lands to help meet the present and future needs of the Nation.
Mining Act of 1955
69 Stat. 368, as amended; 30 U.S.C.611-615
Details the classification of locatable minerals. Unpatented mining claims may not be used for any purpose other than prospecting, mining, or processing operations upon the land.
Sustained-Yield Act of 1960
74 Stat. 215; 16 U.S.C. 528-53
Provides for administration of National Forest System lands for the purpose of outdoor recreation, range, timber, watershed, and wildlife and fish, with consideration of minerals management: "Nothing herein shall be construed so as to affect the use or administration of the mineral resources on national forest lands…"
Environmental Policy Act of 1970 (NEPA)
83 Stat. 852; 42 U.S.C. 4321, 4331-4335, 4341-4346, 4346a-b, 4347
Provides for a process by which environmental effects of actions are considered and disclosed to the public in decisions relating to management of federal lands.
Management Act of 1976 (NFMA)
90 Stat. 2949, as amended; 16 U.S.C. 472a, 476, 500, 513-516, 518, 521b, 528, 576b, 594-2, 1600, 1600-1602, 1604, 1606, 1608-1614
Governs the development of forest plans that guide all resource management activities on national forests under the principles of the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act of 1960
30 Stat. 11, as amended; 16 U.S.C. 473-475, 477-482, 551
United States mining laws apply to National Forest lands and the Forest Service regulates surface disturbance.
Resources Protection Act
16 U.S.C. § 19jj
The National Park Service and federal law enforcement authorities use the Park System Resources Protection Act against fossil thefts. The goal is to increase the consequences of illegal behavior so as to deter the behavior. Often times, even if a stolen fossil can be recovered, crude collecting techniques may reduce its value through a loss of data, or damage to other specimens. Often, the most pronounced damage is the loss of the context and the historical record, which is difficult to value in monetary terms. In addition, theft and vandalism often cause other environmental impacts, including the loss of other significant resources. Accordingly, although there is no way to recover such losses, penalties for inflicting the damage should at least be high enough to enhance the deterrent effect. Although the NPS has been successful in using innovative economic models to reach court-approved settlements under the Act, it remains to be seen whether these models adequately reflect the losses to science and education caused by fossil thefts.
Petrified Wood Act
76 Stat. 652; 30 U.S.C. 611
Provides that limited quantities of petrified wood may be removed from Forest lands without permit or charge.
Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA)
91 Stat. 445; 30 U.S.C. 1201, 1236, 1272, 1305
Provides for control and prevention of damage from erosion on un-reclaimed mined lands.
Depredation of Government Property
18 U.S.C. § 641 and § 1361
The federal criminal code provides enforcement authorities with the ability to penalize the theft or depredation of government property (notwithstanding other applicable law). In enforcement actions for illegal fossil collecting, artifact theft (sometimes refereed to pot hunting), etc., it is not uncommon to see such activity prosecuted under the general criminal code which may allow for more teeth than specific, but less punitive, statutes.