Gold Prospecting & Sluicing on the Forest

Most of the National Forests in the western states are open to prospecting and mining, including panning and sluicing for gold. However, it is important that you recognize the following:

  • A considerable amount of privately owned land exists within the boundaries of most National Forests. These private lands are not open to prospecting or mining without the owner's permission. National Forest visitor maps, for sale at all Forest Service offices or online, show the general location of these privately owned tracts.
  • Some National Forest areas are not available for prospecting and mining, including panning for gold. Those areas may include Wilderness, Acquired Mineral Lands, and Mineral Withdrawal Areas. The local ranger district office can provide information about these specific areas.
  • The more easily found mineral deposits have already been discovered and "claimed" by other prospectors. Entering onto these claims for the purpose of prospecting or removing any mineral is "claim jumping" or trespassing.
  • Most western states have laws regarding prospecting and mining that vary from state to state. Therefore, it is important to understand and comply with state law when panning or sluicing on the National Forest.
  • Before you begin prospecting, check the local county records in the county courthouse for any claims in the area in which you are interested. Then check the area on the ground for any evidence of a claim that may have been staked recently.


In general, three government agencies regulate prospecting and mining on Forest Service lands:

  • Forest Service:  The Forest Service manages the surface estate of the National Forest lands and is charged with ensuring that significant disturbance of surface resources (such as endangered species, water quality, fisheries, etc.) from prospecting and mining activities are mitigated and minimized. Normally, panning or sluicing for gold using hand tools and non-motorized equipment is allowed without Forest Service authorization or bond. If an operation requires use of motorized equipment, suction dredges, results in the removal of vegetation, or has potential to cause significant ground disturbance, an operator must contact the closest Forest Service district office to file a Notice of Intent to prospect or mine. Once a Notice of Intent is filed, the district office will evaluate and notify the operator whether a Plan of Operations is required or not based on information gathered from the Notice of Intent. Reclamation requirements and bonding will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
  • Bureau of Land Management (BLM):  The federal agency responsible for managing the mineral estate of the United States is the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The BLM Montana State Office manages minerals in South Dakota and is the office in which a claim staked in South Dakota is recorded. Please contact the BLM at (406) 896-5004 or visit their website if you wish to stake a mineral claim in South Dakota. The BLM Wyoming State Office manages the federal mineral estate in Wyoming. If you wish to stake a claim on federal land in Wyoming, please contact the BLM at (307) 775-6251 or visit their website
  • State Law:  Most western states have different requirements for mining and prospecting. In general the State of South Dakota does not require a permit for panning or hand sluicing; however, permits and bonds are needed when motorized equipment or suction dredging is used. Specific state requirements for South Dakota can be found on their website   
  • The State of Wyoming also regulates mining and prospecting. In general, the use of hand tools, pans, and sluices is allowed; however, prohibitions may exist on certain streams due to water quality concerns. In addition, permits and bonds may be required for suction dredges and for the use of motorized equipment. Visit their website for information on Wyoming requirements for obtaining permits.