Can I Take Rocks From Public Land?

Ossiana Tepfenhart
by Ossiana Tepfenhart

Most of us have heard of stories of kids who found a special stone on the beach and brought it home. No biggie, right? If you read ghost stories, you might also have heard of tourists who took sand and stones from a cursed beach, only to send it back later claiming it brought them bad luck due to angry spirits.

Believe it or not, the laws might have something to say about taking stones from public land too.

You can collect rocks from public land if they are for personal use. However, precious stones or rocks that contain fossils are illegal to take from public land. Conservation police can and will take legal action if there is proof that someone illegally obtains rocks.

Surprising, isn’t it? So were we. According to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), taking excessive amounts of rock can potentially be a federal crime known as rockhounding. Here’s what you need to know about this little-known crime and why it even exists.

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What Is Rockhounding?

Rockhounding is technically the definition of collecting rocks, semiprecious stones, and fossils from natural areas. If you’ve ever picked up a pretty shell that you found on the beach, you (kind of) rockhounded.

When we’re talking about it in a criminal sense, it means that you’re collecting rocks in a way that’s not permitted by the BLM or that could be potentially dangerous to the local environment.

Is It Legal To Take Rocks From Public Land?

In most cases, you can take a rock from public land or park without a need for a permit or paying a fee. However, if you want to do it, the following things must be true:

  • You have to be using them for personal use. Commercial uses or sales are not allowed in most parts of the country. To find out if you are allowed to sell the specimens you find, check your local state laws.
  • You aren’t taking more than 250 pounds of rock per year, or 25 pounds of rock per day. More than that can get you written up. This means that you can’t exactly go rock-hunting for a gravel driveway or a landscaping project.
  • You aren’t taking fossils from vertebrate animals. If you want to take a vertebrate animal’s fossils, you will need to get a permit from the BLM. Invertebrate fossils and plant fossils are fine to take.
  • You’re not trying to take rocks from national parks. This is actually a federal offense.
  • The items that you’re picking up are not the expressed personal property of someone else. So, if you find a stone that is painted and clearly has someone’s name on it, it’s probably theft.
  • The rocks in question did not come from a cave. Due to the delicate nature of cave ecosystems, it’s illegal to remove cave resources from the habitat. Removing rocks could potentially harm animals or upset the structural integrity of the cave itself.
  • The rocks or natural items that you’re taking are not considered to be cultural items. Things like carved stones, Native American artifacts, or parts of a totem need to stay in their place (more on this below).

Can You Take Stones And Sand From Public Beaches?

This can vary greatly depending on state and township laws. Many tourist states have laws against collecting rocks and sand on major beaches because it can potentially cause damage to the local shoreline. Before you get collecting, check to see what the local laws are regarding the collection of sand, stones, and shells.

Most of the time, beaches that have laws on the books about collecting rocks will have signs posted near their entrance. Even so, it’s best to double-check before you get in trouble.

How Can I Get A Permit To Take More Rocks And Stone?

If you want to take rocks, petrified wood, or other artifacts that would otherwise be barred by the Bureau of Land Management, you will need to apply for a permit. The BLM allows permits for archeologists who are working with an educational group, a historical society, as well as archeological groups.

Should you get approved for a permit to excavate more rocks, you are not allowed to keep them. The stones will have to go into a collection at a museum or educational institution.

Cultural Artifacts

According to the Bureau of Land Management, you cannot disturb, remove, damage, transfer, or excavate cultural materials without a permit. These include prehistoric and historic artifacts and sites, along with broken items or debris that was used or produced by humans and is over 100 years old.

Protected cultural materials include:

  • Grinding stones
  • Arrowheads, and other stone tools
  • Baskets
  • Beads
  • Old bottles
  • Metal tools
  • Pottery
  • Graves
  • Trash scatters
  • Horse shoes

You also cannot collect on sites that are considered historic – including graves, mining areas, sawmills, ranches, trail traces, and railroads. While metal detectors may be used and money can be collected from public lands, you cannot take any coins or artifacts that are older than 100 years.

Wood, Plants, and Pine Nuts

There are variety of tree species that are available for use as firewood, so long as you have a personal use permit. This allows you to cup up to 10 cords per family per year in designated areas for a fee. Whereas, the collection of dead or down wood is permitted for campfire use, except for posted sites.

During the holiday season, you can obtain a Christmas tree permit for a nominal fee. Always check with your local BLM office in regards to permit specifications and maps for tree cutting areas. In most areas, you can collect a small amount of plants, plant parts, flowers, berries, and sees for personal use.

However, yuccas, succulents, cacti, and evergreen shrubs and trees are considered protected, as they are endangered or threatened. Therefore, any species that is considered a candidate for endangered status should be avoided entirely, with or without a permit.

In regards to pine nuts, BLM specifies that you can collect up to 25 pounds of pine nuts per person per year for non-commercial use. Though, there are some areas that are designated for commercial collecting. Regardless, if you are doing any collecting of seeds, plants, pine nuts, firewood, and the like for commercial reasons, you must have a permit.

What Could Happen If You Get Caught Taking Specimens Illegally?

The penalties that you could face for illegal theft of artifacts or collecting unreasonable amounts of rocks will vary from state to state. Penalties can also change based on how much you’ve taken. In the past, people who have gone overboard with rock collection have faced:

  • Fines exceeding $1,000.
  • Being detained by BLM officers.
  • Jail time.
  • Civil lawsuits.

Is Taking Rocks From Public Lands A Civil Or Criminal Matter?

This depends on the scale of the crime as well as the area that you were caught. If you are taking cultural heritage items from public land or collect extreme excesses of rocks, then you may get a criminal charge.

However, most excessive rock collections just end up being a civil matter that ends in a high fine.

It’s important to note that public land doesn’t mean that the items on the public land are public property. For example, one person in Minnesota decided to steal a restaurant’s landscaping rocks for his own personal use. The act was caught on tape. He was arrested, charged with larceny, and sent to jail. This was a clear criminal matter.

The concept of getting jail time for rock theft is not a one-off issue. In Arkansas, a similar matter occurred. Three people were charged with stealing rocks and were given jail time as a result.

So if you want to grab some rocks, make sure that the rocks don’t belong to anyone first. It’s a rather stupid crime to get charged with, don’t you think?

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Related Questions

Are there any places that are open for free, noncommital rock collecting?

Yes. You can actually find rock collecting hotspots that are greenlit by the Bureau of Land Management by searching it up online. Many of them were dedicated to rock collection by the National Park Service, too!

How many fossils are you allowed to collect per day?

Fossils are not allowed to be collected in the same quantities as regular rock specimens. You are only allowed to get 15 pounds of fossils per day, at most.

What are Hawaii’s rock collection and sand collection rules?

In Hawaii, the laws on rock collection get even stricter. You are only allowed to collect a total of one gallon of sand and/or rocks per day. With that said, many beaches do not allow sand collection on them at all since you are dealing with a cultural property.

How can I make sure that I’m not breaking the law while collecting rocks?

The best way to do it is to check on local laws, use multiple sources to ensure that you got the right information, and to stay under the limit. If you are still not sure whether you’re breaking a law, it may be better to talk to a legal expert.

Ossiana Tepfenhart
Ossiana Tepfenhart

Ossiana Tepfenhart is an expert writer, focusing on interior design and general home tips. Writing is her life, and it's what she does best. Her interests include art and real estate investments.

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