Recreational Mineral Collection/Rockhounding

Rockhounding, Mineral Collecting, and Our National Forests

("unofficial" advice and observation for the mineral enthusiast looking at National Forest lands...)
by: John Nichols, Forest Geologist, Ouachita National Forest
February 1997

The US Forest Service

The US Forest Service is a federal agency under the US Department of Agriculture. The Forest Service is responsible for managing 191,000,000 acres of federal lands contained within 156 National Forests and 19 National Grasslands, located in 40 States from Alaska to Florida, and in Puerto Rico. Each National Forest is divided into units called "Ranger Districts". The Forest lands within each Ranger District are the responsibility of the line officer called the "District Ranger", who in turn is under the "Forest Supervisor" for each Forest.

For example, the Ouachita National Forest in Arkansas and Oklahoma -- the oldest and largest in the Southeast -- is 1.7 million acres in size and divided into 12 Ranger Districts. The Ranger District offices are located across the Forest. The headquarters for the Ouachita National Forest is the Forest Supervisors Office in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

The National Forests are grouped into "Regions" headed by a Regional Forester. There are nine Forest Service Regions throughout the United States. The Regional Offices cover National Forests in multiple States, with the exception of Alaska and California with Regions and Regional Offices that cover these States. The Forest Supervisors, also line officers, are under the Regional Foresters, who themselves are under the Chief of the Forest Service in the USDA Forest Service Washington Office in Washington D.C. The Forest Service Washington Office is under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, headed by the Secretary of Agriculture (who in turn works for the President of the United States...)

For example, within the Forest Service's Southeastern Region (Region 8) there are 35 National Forests in 13 southern states and Puerto Rico. The Regional Office (and Regional Forester) for the Southeastern Region is located in Atlanta, Georgia.

The Forest Service District Offices, Forest Supervisors Offices, Regional Offices, and the Washington Office have staff units with specialists, technicians, professionals, field personnel, and other types of employees that oversee and are involved with all the various resource programs on the 191 million acres of National Forest lands the Forest Service is responsible for. The minerals and geology program is just one of many programs that involves District resource specialists working for the District Rangers,and Minerals Program Managers, Geologists, and Mining Engineers working for the Forest Supervisor, Regional Forester, and the Chief.

National Forest Management

The Forest Service is responsible for managing a wide variety of resources on the National Forests including: recreation, timber, fish, wildlife, soils, threatened and endangered species, mining, cultural resources, water, air quality, wilderness, wild and scenic rivers. While management of one resource often complements management of other resources, sometimes just the opposite occurs creating interesting challenges in balanced management.

For example, wilderness management precludes many surface impacting activities, yet there are some mining rights cases that do involve surface impacting activities within wilderness areas.

The publics varied desires for different uses on National Forest lands, as expressed through the numerous laws governing how those lands are to be managed, are extensive. For every citizen who demands the National Forests be managed in one way there are many others with very different and often conflicting desires.

Mineral Collecting on National Forests

Collecting minerals on National Forest lands can be both exciting and challenging. Many developed and undeveloped opportunities already exist to collect rock and mineral specimens. For example, the Beaverhead National Forest in Montana, the St. Joe in Idaho, and the Ouachita National Forest in Arkansas and Oklahoma, all have developed public mineral collecting locations. Many National Forests provide information on general specimen locations within the Forest and on Forest policy and rules for the rockhounder and mineral collector. For example, the Chugach National Forest in Alaska, the Wallowa-Whitman in Oregon, and the Prescott in Arizona are some Forests with histories of placer gold mining and as such these Forests offer informative materials on panning and suction dredging for gold.

Restricted Access: The old axiom "Gold Is Where You Find It" is true for all minerals. Whether it is quartz crystal in Arkansas, Garnets in Idaho, ruby in North Carolina, or Thundereggs in Oregon, the collector and rockhounder must go to where the minerals are. If an area is unavailable to the collector, the mineral specimens that may be within that area will go undiscovered. This results not only in a loss to the mineral collecting community, but often to the academic and scientific community as well. Areas on National Forests that generally are not available for minerals activities include wildernesses and designated "wild" portions of rivers that Congress has determined will be very selectively managed. Other areas include lands that Congress has either excluded mineral collecting outright, or have simply not given the Forest Service authority to manage for mineral collecting. It is important for the mineral collector and rockhounder to understand Congress's direction, based on public mandate, for managing the National Forests and how the Forest Service functions in following that direction.

It's "The Law" for the Miner

Some mineral collectors and rockhounders desiring to operate on National Forests may intend to sell the specimens they remove or to conduct what may become significant surface disturbing operations. These collectors and 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.

It's "No Law" (yet) for the Collector

Aside from the mining laws, at this time there is no law that provides a specific "right" for mineral collectors and rockhounders to collect specimens from federal lands such as National Forests. However, several laws may open some doors:

* The Organic Act of 1897, one of the National Forest creation acts, provided authority to "...make such rules and regulations and establish such service as will...regulate their occupancy and use and to preserve the forests thereon from destruction." Accessing federal minerals is an important "use" of National Forest lands to many people.

* The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA) provided that "...the public lands be managed in a manner that will protect the quality of scientific, scenic, historical, ecological, environmental, air and atmospheric, water resource, and archeological values; that where appropriate will preserve and protect certain public lands in their natural condition; that will provide food and habitat for fish and wildlife and domestic animals; and that will provide for outdoor recreation and human occupancy and use." FLPMA calls for a balance among all uses to "manage", "protect", "preserve" and "provide", as do other laws such as the National Forest Management Act (NFMA) of 1976.

The "Activity" of Collecting

Generally, the activity of collecting minerals on National Forests does not "significantly" impact (disturb) other Forest resources. Consequently, the collector will often find that simply contacting the District Ranger and explaining what he or she would like to do is all that is necessary to receive "permission" to conduct their desired activity on the Forest.

For example, typical mineral collecting and rockhounding activities often involves digging and chipping with tools such as small garden trowels, scrapers, and rock hammers. Usually the District Ranger is not concerned with this type of low level impact and will often simply thank the person for contacting the Forest Service and wish them well in their endeavors.

In those cases where the collecting activity could lead to greater resource impacts, the District Ranger may require a written proposal from the parties for formal review and evaluation.

For example, a mineral club may want to use a backhoe to remove overburden (dirt) and expose rock so members can collect fresh mineral specimens on a club outing. The District Ranger will want more information on the collecting locality so that Forest resource specialists can review the area to understand what impacts may occur to other resources. Club officers in turn will want to provide that information well in advance of the planned trip to give the Ranger adequate time to evaluate the proposal.

The more surface impact being proposed, generally the more intense the evaluation becomes. A District Ranger "Approval" to operate on the Forest is a written agreement (letter, contract, permit, tce.) between the Ranger and the operator, and includes whom the responsible party will be, how they will reclaim the impact, and also usually requires a reclamation bond to ensure that they complete all necessary reclamation.

For the Benefit of "Science"

Many mineral collectors and mineral collecting organizations invest much of their effort in the search and recovery of mineral specimens for educational and scientific purposes. These collectors may publish articles or statements about the significance of their finds in professional and/or lay publications (club magazines and journals). It is important for the collector to help the District Ranger understand that the site the collector wants to access on the Forest is important for these reasons as well.

For example, a scientific or academic endeavor could result in the District Ranger allowing use of a closed road to facilitate temporary access to a collecting locality, or directing resource specialists to evaluate potential impacts from the proposed endeavor ahead of other District work.

In Conclusion:

The key to mineral collecting and rockhounding on our National Forests is communication: making contact and talking with the local District Ranger. Not only will the collector find out what the policies and rules are, but they will discover that the Forest Service can provide many other practical resources such as maps, information on camping and other recreational activities, and other items of interest on the Forest. Some Forests have Geologists or Mining Engineers on their staff, usually located in the Forest Supervisors Office. Others rely on the expertise of Geologists in their Regional Offices. The Forest or Regional Geologist can often provide information on Forest policy and procedure, facilitate communications with the District Ranger, and provide invaluable minerals, geology, and reference information to the rockhounder.

Two Definitions (General and Non-binding...):

Rockhounders: Those persons interested in the non-commercial search for and removal of rocks and minerals for personal purposes, typically using only small hand tools.

Mineral Specimen Collectors: Those persons interested in collecting unique mineral specimens primarily for scientific or academic interests, and often publishing the results.

Click here to access USDA's Rockhounding Brochure