Field Collecting and Mining Claims

Joe HeadshotI often get questions on Where can I go to go collecting and How does one go about getting a mining claim?

Disclaimer: None of the following should be construed as giving permission to dig or collect for specimens on any property, private or Federal. Also, I am not an expert on mining law and laws are different for each State. The information provided should be considered a guide. If you have specific questions, check with the proper authority (such as the Forest Service or BLM) or a lawyer.

Collecting access: Many fine mineral specimens can be recovered from open areas within Colorado. In general, you can collect specimens for casual or hobby use (as opposed to commercial) on Federal and State lands. Additionally, many private landowners will give permission and allow hobby collecting. Remember, you must have written permission. This is the only safe way if the sheriff decides to stop and question you or other claim owners do so. Same for landowners. People in Colorado have a tendancy to watch out for each other and many owners will ask neighbors and nearby claimants to watch their claims.

By the way,┬áif you do make a mistake and end up where you aren’t supposed to be . . . apologize. Ask for information on claim or private land boundaries (in general) and respect the individuals who are confronting you. It isn’t fun to have to confront someone. Often times a claim owner can forgive a mistake but is reluctant to do so if your attitude is bad or you are deceitful. Also, it is appropriate to show the owner anything you may have found and to return it without being asked.

If you do get access to collect on private claims or on private property (also Federal or State lands), remember to be gracious and follow strictly the landowner or claimowner’s requirements. The Forest Service and BLM do have some restrictions. (Clubs know what the rules are and follow a code of ethics.) FILL ALL HOLES, TAKE OUT YOUR GARBAGE and any other garbage you might find, and be environmentally concious (avoid digging under trees, etc.). You should always inform the landowner or claimowner of what you found and where you worked and if there were any noted problems (for example, evidence of claim jumpers, vandalism, etc.). If you do find something great, make sure the owner has an opportunity to assess value. It may be the owner would like to keep some or all (They are trying to make a living doing this.) Pay particular attention to safety. The biggest concern the owners have is for your safety. No rock is worth your life or someone else’s. See my safety briefings

Where to Find Information

Your best information on where to go and how to do it can be gained from your local gem and mineral club. You can look up many of the Colorado clubs online or contact a club through the American Federation of Mineralogical Societies. Most clubs sponsor gem and mineral shows and have monthly programs for their membership. Most also offer fieldtrips. They go through the trouble of getting the proper permission and obtaining information on where to go. Fieldtrips are usually reserved for members and are often limited in number to participants. All club collecting is restricted to non-commercial enjoyment. Club membership dues help cover insurance and program fees. Because most clubs carry insurance they can get access to some collecting areas, particularly mines, whereas a private individual cannot. Fieldtrips are one of the most exciting parts of membership so it is wise to sign up early.

There are many excellent fieldguides available for areas throughout the US. Colorado Rockhounding by Stephen M. Voynick is perhaps the most widly used in Colorado. An older, out of print book, Colorado Gem Trails and Mineral Guide by Richard M. Pearl is also a fine resource. Both of these guides are terribly out of date as to access, however. More recent information is available on the internet; however, consider the source of information carefully, particularily if they give the impression an area is open to collecting. Although many areas are still open to hobby collecting, IT IS BEST TO ASSUME THEY ARE CLOSED and do your own research to obtain permission. Use the book and internet information as a place to start and then ask questions. Unless you have firsthand experience, consider no area open. PERIOD. Although Federal and State lands not otherwise removed from mineral location or already under active mining claims should be open for collecting, there are numerous exceptions and claims are always coming and going.

Do your research. I cannot stress enough that you are responsible for knowing where you are and whether or not you can collect on any given area. That’s why, membership in a gem and mineral club is especially valuable.

Remember these tips. Only the landowner or claim owner can give proper permission. Many claim markings will be old and most claims show little or no activity. Claim markers may be 750 feet apart (or more) and are rarely visible. CONSIDER THESE CLAIMS VALID. Even if a claim marker comes down or has been (illegally) removed, the claim is still valid. (Even if you believe a claim is not correctly marked, etc., only the Federal Government can invalidate a mining claim. The BLM lists these.) There are lots of private inholdings within the National Forest and BLM lands. Particularly in Colorado, there are many, many private PATENTED mining claims. Even if these are not posted or fenced (almost none are), this is private property and no digging is allowed without permission. Even some of the tops of Colorado’s 14’rs are patented mining claims!

By the way, it’s a felony to tamper with, remove, or destroy any property on a mining claim. This means moving or taking tools, removing or moving claim markers, damaging gates or signs, etc. You may also not remove minerals from the claim whether on the surface or below.

Can I be on someone’s claim accidentally or walk across it? Yes, with some restrictions, you can hike across a claim, go game hunting there, or use the land similar to normal recreational activity which is allowed by the land owner (Forest Service or BLM for example), but you cannot remove minerals. That being said, certain areas on a claim can be closed by the claimant for safety purposes and for securing equipment and private property. For your safety, whether fenced or signed or not (fencing is not required of the claim owner and restricted on Federal lands) avoid any active mining sites, this includes small excavations, but is certainly not limited to them. Absolutely obey any gates or signage that restricts your entry. The Forest Service requires claim owners to bond the access roads (which are not system roads) and reclaim these roads when finished mining. These are then considered private roads under the management of the mine owner. Even though the road may cross non-claimed portions of open land or even other persons’ claims, you may not use or access these roads. Stay on system roads and use them as allowed by the appropriate land owner (USFS or BLM). If you know you will be hiking or recreating on or near another person’s claims, as a courtesy you should contact and inform that person.

If I find a likely spot for digging, how do I go about finding out if it is open to mineral location?

First check with the Forest Service or BLM to determine if the land has been removed from mineral location. If not, go to the BLM LR2000 and look up the quarter section which you are in (today, that’s no sweat with a GPS unit and good map). Check for active claims in that quarter section. Also check for private property (if necessary go to the County Court House). If nothing is present, you should be good to go unless there is an easement or something else which is not recorded. Also, be aware, although the BLM is the agency through which claims are filed, the BLM is frequently not on top of things and likely will not have their records up to date, AND THEY MAKE ERRORS. Be wary if a claim is listed as “inactive.” It is still likely that the claimant has renewed the claim and it is just not yet recorded, or the BLM has made an error. If there are active mining claims, it is your job to locate them in the field. Best bet is to get the claim maps from the BLM (pay for them to make a copy) and physically locate the claims in the field. Once you determine your area is open, you may consider filing a claim.

Horror stories:

Unfortunately, there are many horror stories from would-be claim owners from innocent mistakes to outright fraud. In the Crystal Peak Area, there are still unscrupulous persons trying to sell mining claims and who state you can build a cabin on the land and own it. NOT IN YOUR LIFETIME. You could, if you could patent the claim but this has been disallowed by Congress since the early 90s. Secondly, many “inactive” claims have been dropped for administrative reasons. The BLM does not give reasons why a claim is “inactive.” Most claims are dropped because other claims already cover the area and the claim is “junior,” having no mineral rights. One claimant who was informed his claim was “junior” to others, rather than drop his claim, sold it for a large sum of money to other would-be claim owners. Other times the claim owner may refile claims in an attempt to reposition other claims to cover the same area and hence, the “dropped” claim is no longer covering any open ground. In short, do not assume since a claim is “inactive” that it can be refiled to make it “active.”

Consider the Reasons for Filing a Claim

If you are intent in developing the mineral resources for economic benefit, you are correct in considering a mining claim. If not, you should consider just keeping your spot quiet and enjoy some recreational collecting. If you do more than recreational digging in the state of Colorado, you must not only have a plan of operations from the Forest Service, but you must have a mining permit (or prospecting permit) from the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining, and Safety. (See below.)

It’s open. Can I file a claim?

Probably. The BLM has a great pamphlet describing how to do so. Unless you are in a placer deposit, most likely, you will be looking at filing a lode claim. Only if a deposit does not qualify as a lode claim can it potentially be filed on as a placer. Generally, a lode claim is 1,500 feet in length by 600 feet in width. The BLM guide will tell you how to properly locate it. All markers must be marked with the claim name and the appropriate corner, i.e. Voodoo NW Cnr. No. 1. (This is so another person can determine which direction your claim runs.) File your claim notice and map with the County and with the BLM. Costs vary but generally BLM is about $225 which includes the first year rental fee.

Some Nuances to Be Aware Of

If you overlap some other claimant, only that portion which is not on the other claim is open to you. The other claimant is senior. You have an obligation to notify the other claim owner of any overlaps and assure them you understand where the boundaries are. You also must notify the senior claimant if you wish to access your claim through theirs. You cannot use non-system roads even if you have a claim without proper bonding or permission. You cannot file a placer claim over a lode claim. If someone has a valid lode claim you cannot have access to overfile. Additionally, unless the material is colluvial or alluvial and concentrated and transported from its originaly spot of formation, it does not qualify as a placer claim. Now, if it is in the bed of a stream, or similar area where transport is indisputable, then you would file as a placer claim. If you do encounter a lode deposit after you mine through the placer, it is possible to convert to a lode claim.

Can I Dig Now? NO.

Well, maybe you can if all you are doing is casual digging, but then, you shouldn’t have a claim if that’s all you are doing. (This is not my interpretation. That’s why you must check with both the Federal Government and the State.)

In the State of Colorado, send a notice of intent to both the Forest Service (or BLM as appropriate) and the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining, and Safety even if all you plan to do is hand dig. Note that the CDRMS comes into play for any property in Colorado, private or public. The Forest Service will notify you if a plan of operations is needed. Similarly, the State will notify you for requirements for either a prospecting permit or mining permit whichever is appropriate. The approximate fee for a permit with the Division is $1,000 plus about $2,000 for your disturbance. Disturbance which are more significant will require a much more significant bond. If you plan to use mechanized equipment, plan on close to $10,000. Note that I cannot give you an exact figure; it depends on the level of disturbance and planned operation. Be prepared to wait two years for final approval. You should get it within a year, but the State and Federal Government will require a biologist, archaeologist, and hydrologist to look at and approve all your dig sites. In addition, time for public input must be allowed, and sometimes winter intervenes. And if you do get a mining permit, the county may require a conditional use permit which can be another $1,500.

Reality Check

Can I make money at this? I began mining as a result of my passion for hunting and collecting mineral specimens. I first started collecting rocks when I was 6 years old. I began panning for gold when I was 10 and began serious prospecting for gems at that time. I grew up in an area in the country where prospecting and mining were a way of life so I had some opportunities that most folks no longer have. I began seriously prospecting for mineral specimens when I returned to Colorado in the early 80s. I spent all my free time doing so with a pick and shovel until the early 90s when I began assisting Jack Buckner who was pioneering the use of mechanized equipment on pegmatite structures in the Lake George area. I began using mechanized equipment in 1993, sinking every spare dollar I had into my prospecting until I had expended what money I had for the season. I also began staking and purchasing mining claims. Others I leased. I cleaned and sold the specimens which I found, but mostly sold specimens other miners had found, taking a small commission for doing so. Over the years, my children joined in the search with me. We developed our cleaning techniques and prospecting techniques. In 2002 we finally discovered a series of pegmatites which appeared to have more than one or two pockets and which could be commercially viable. We procured mining permits and at first rented heavy equipment. Finally, in 2005 we hit enough pockets that we could see it might be feasible to actually make a profit. Even so, it was not until later that I finally did. We believe we have a couple more very promising seasons but I believe we will soon be back to mechanized prospecting, looking for another worthwhile structure.

You be the judge. But if you want to just go and have fun and find a nice crystal pocket, there are still many, many, excellent opportunities.

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