USFS-Managed Public Lands & Rockhounding

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Overview - Federal Lands Managed by USFS
The USFS has responsibility to manage 192,000,000 acres of federal public lands designated as National Forests (155 National Forests) and National Grasslands (22 National Grasslands) in 42 states.  Some USFS-managed public lands are open to recreational rockhounding.  There are some huge exceptions.  Certain lands that are withdrawn or reserved for specific purposes other than rockhounding are off limits to rockhounding.  These areas include the following:

  • Wilderness Areas (there are over 700 Wilderness Areas comprising over 107,000,000 acres and the USFS has management responsibility for over half of this property)
  • "Wild" areas of specially designated rivers
  • Recreation Sites
  • National Historic Sites

Accordingly, rockhounders should check - in advance - with the applicable USFS district.
  In addition, certain lands may be subject to mining claims that may preclude certain rockhounding activities.  
Some National Forest System lands, however, allow rockhounders "limited collection" of rocks and minerals for personal use. These materials may be collected without a permit provided:

  • You are on Forest Service land
  • The mineral rights are not privately owned
  • Rockhounding is not prohibited in the area
  • The collecting is for personal, hobby, and noncommercial use
  • No digging (beyond small hand tools) or excavating takes place

Specially Designated Rockhounding Sites
In addition to other rockhounding opportunities on USFS-managed public lands, the USFS has certain specially designated existing developed and undeveloped opportunities for rockhounders to collect rock and mineral specimens.  These areas include:

  • Arkansas:  Ouachita National Forest
  • Idaho:  St. Joe National Forest
  • Montana:  Beaverhead National Forest

Collection Limits:  Rocks & Minerals

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Recreational rockhounders often may collect – for personal use – “small quantities” of rocks and minerals from USFS-managed public lands.

There is no USFS-wide defined quantity ‘safe harbor’ for collecting.  It is not uncommon for national forests to define ‘small quantities’ as hand-sized or smaller and a total volume that can fit in your pocket or a sample bag.
Note:  USFS may require recreational rockhounders to obtain a permit (often free) prior to collecting.  See, e.g., Modoc National Forest (obsidian collecting).

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 Trading, Bartering, or Selling Fossils - The material must be for your personal use only.  It may not be sold or bartered to commercial dealers or any other person.  Trading, bartering, or selling any fossil material (plants, invertebrates, vertebrates, or any trace fossils) removed from National Forest System lands is prohibited.
  • Stockpiles
 - Taking rock from stockpiles is not allowed (this rock often is used to surface roads).
  • Withdrawn Lands & Special Designation Areas
 -Some USFS lands are withdrawn or reserved for certain purposes such as wilderness areas.  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 - Rockhounders may not collect artifacts (ancient or historical) 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. The USFS also discourages searching for artifacts (man made objects) with metal detectors on the basis that any ancient or historical artifacts found (e.g., old coins, metal implements, or utensils) may not be removed from federal lands.
  • Archaeological Resources - Rockhounders may not collect archeological resources, including any material remains of prehistoric or historic human life or activities, which are at least 50 years old, and includes the physical site, location, or context in which they are found without a permit. See 36 CFR 261.2.
  • Arrowheads - Rockhounders may not collect projectile points (including arrowheads and any prehistoric human-modified stone), pottery, or any other archeological resource or artifact without a permit.  See 36 CFR 261.9(h).
 Human Burial Remains - This should go without saying, but ... if you read a newspaper, you might 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 Closurese) - 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 Operations
Some rockhounders (or, more likely, rockhounding clubs) who wish to operate on National Forests may intend to sell the specimens they remove or to conduct what may become significant surface disturbing operations.  These rockhounders should become familiar with the mining laws that provide for and govern mining related activities on National Forests.
  The mining laws are designed primarily for commercial type exploration and production operations, and require the operator to submit mining plans for reviews and approvals.  Under these laws the minerals are removed with the least impact to other resources and the lands are reclaimed by the operator for other uses when mining is completed.  These laws offer certain advantages and rights that many mineral clubs and individual collectors often are also willing to take advantage of even though they may result in some extra effort and expense.

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