Last update: November 11, 2014 (+ minor December 14, 2018)
Rockhounding is a kind of treasure-hunting. But rockhounds often discover that most of their "finds" are more valuable to themselves than to others. They're just keepsakes or mementos without much cash value. Or perhaps only the rockhound -- not even their spouse (grin) -- appreciates the natural beauty hidden in their treasures.
This can be a boon rather than a bane. Source locations of rocks and minerals widely recognized as valuable are usually claimed, patented, or otherwise privately-owned. They are developed and/or protected, only available to the casual rockhound through fee digging or special "open to the public" events.
In some parts of the United States there is little public land. Also a lot of public land (Park Service, most state parks, etc) is managed in a way that precludes rockhounding. This includes hobby-only, surface-only collecting. Even in locations like Colorado or Wyoming where "open" (BLM, USFS) public land is common, it can still be fun and productive to obtain the right to collect on private parcels.
It can also be very frustrating! But like any treasure-hunting, getting permission to rockhound -- for free -- on a "great site" on private land is a very rewarding experience.
Over the years I've located and pursued permissions on private lands at least 16 times, with 9 successes and 7 "no"s; plus 3 honorable mentions for approvals to highgrade on gravel piles at some quarries! Along the way I've learned a few tricks that I'll share with you as a three-step process.
First you need a target. This is a place where you know or suspect there are interesting rocks you want to take home, which is owned by a person or company and not by a government. Or in some cases you can actually get permission from a government agency -- I've done that too.
First, a friend might buy or own some land on which you can prospect. That's happened to me. But it's rarely that easy, and the odds of finding good rocks that way are low (unless what they own is a mining claim!)
You might find sites in rockhounding guidebooks, or hear rumors of good spots from acquaintances. You might study an area's geology, terrain ("are those alluvial pebbles on top of mudstone?"), and outcrops ("hey that looks like Morrison formation"). Or you might make inferences such as, "This creek drains from an agate-rich region." You might check a public right-of-way where a road crosses a streambed to see what's in the drainage. You might stop the car in likely-looking spots to scout near the road, or visually scan the ground beyond a rancher's barbed-wire fence.
However you come up with targets, it's helpful to study relevant maps showing types of ownerships. For example, BLM maps are great in BLM-rich areas. They are cheap, too, presently just $4 apiece from field offices, postage included. USFS maps work well, say, for the Pawnee National Grasslands in Colorado. Careful map-reading, often with knowledgeable use of a GPS unit, can clarify whether or not your target is a privately-owned parcel.
Here's where diverse resources can make this easy or difficult. But usually today you can do the homework from your computer and telephone! Most counties in which I've been interested -- in CO, WY, AZ, and MO at least -- have online "parcel search" websites. However, no two counties have offered the same interfaces, and they've ranged from excellent to atrocious. Regardless, any county that collects property taxes maintains public records on how to contact the landowners who owe the taxes.
Start with web-searching for something like this: "Jefferson County, CO, property records." You might just end up at a top-level webpage for the county, or at an appraiser/assessor webpage, or you might get lucky and hit directly on the county's search engine. Some perseverance is required to look around for a given county's method, if it exists.
Let's immediately dispense with counties that don't seem to offer this feature yet. In that case, try to find a phone number or email address for the assessor, appraiser, or records office. If all else fails, start with the county courthouse and work your way down through phone calls. Your goal is to find a friendly person who knows something about the county's property records, who can help you get what you want, or at least tell you the rules. (In the old days there was usually no substitute for a personal visit to the dusty records in the courthouse, doing your own research.)
If a county does offer online property searches, check for a GIS (Geographic Information System) interface of some kind. This is an online map that lets you visualize and identify parcel ownerships and property tax records. You'll have to figure out how to get to the right place and look up a parcel owner.
Without an online map, other clues might be required. Is there a mailbox on the property that has a last name or street address? How about a ranch entrance gate with a name above it? Can you get anywhere by searching on that information? Does the guy at the gas station a few miles away know the landowner? You get the idea. Your goal, by web, email, or phone, is to identify the boundaries of the land where you want to hunt, and to determine who owns it.
Now suppose you've identified an owner. Wait a minute! What if all you have is a company name, or an estate or trust, or a post office box address, or (if you are lucky) a street address? Public land records don't seem to include phone numbers or email addresses. Yet more clever web-searching is usually required.
If all you have is a PO box, try various approaches to see if you can locate a person or company's mailing address or phone number by their last name or other particulars. What can you discover about a land-owning association? Sometimes they have virtually no web presence and you hit a dead end. Take a break, try again later with new ideas, watch for other real-world clues.
This process is also a kind of treasure-hunting, more like solving a mystery than finding a gemstone. It feels a little creepy trying to "finger" a complete stranger, but you have a valid reason and a legal right to do this research. Be sure to keep good notes as you go along, you'll need them for later reference. Open a computer file or start a paper folder. Keep track of websites, who you communicate with, and how and when it happens.
Once you locate either a phone number (usually not an email address) or a physical address for a landowner, it's time to take a deep breath, screw up your courage, and make that initial contact.
By phone or in person (such as knocking on a farmhouse door), your first introduction is very important. You are interrupting someone who doesn't know you, asking for a favor that might be small to them (once they understand how innocent it is) but which means a lot to you. Keep it simple, informative, and friendly, like this: "Howdy, I'm so-and-so from place. I'm sorry to interrupt you. I looked you up on the web or whatever as the owner of such-and-such a piece of land. I just want to ask you a small favor. May I talk with you a minute about your property?"
We're all used to spammers and naturally suspicious of them. Letting the owner know right away how you found them and why you are talking with them, plus being cheerful and friendly, can open the door a little. I've not thought to try this, but one person suggested wearing your club namebadge when you approach someone in person.
If that goes well, next I might say something like this, depending on the details: "I'm an amateur rock collector, a member of the Fort Collins Rockhounds Club. I noticed that you have some agates on your farmland. I wonder if I might get permission from you to occasionally walk around and do a little collecting on your property. I'm just a hobbyist, not making any money or digging any holes. I give away most of what I find, such as to kids on Halloween. Also I'd be happy to give back to you some tumble-polished samples of whatever rocks I collect."
That's a lot to convey quickly. But I've had some good luck building casual and positive relationships by explaining immediately that I'm harmless, respectful of their property rights, and I just want to share the fun with them. Offering to "pay back" polished rocks from their own property can be a real enticement.
In some cases the landowner is very receptive. Then it's just a matter of agreeing on the terms while taking as little of their time as possible. Do they want to know before each time you visit, just afterwards, or not at all? Would they like to be notified if you see anything amiss on their property? Would they prefer you to contact them by phone or email? And so on. Sometimes they already have a prepared permission form of some kind for you to sign. Be sure to express your gratitude honestly and liberally.
On the other hand, sometimes the landowner is suspicious, annoyed to be bothered, or otherwise unfriendly. Sometimes your request is Against Company Policy For Liability Reasons. In that case all you can do is to remain cheerful, appreciative, and brief. Sometimes you can diplomatically learn their reasons for rejecting you before you let go of them. For example, one farmer ran his own rock tumblers, and he wanted the agates for himself! We still had a very friendly chat, and it wasn't a waste of my time even though his answer was "no".
Another time I came to appreciate that landowners around the Petrified Forest in Arizona have been bothered by rockhounds for years, are wary, and mostly want to be left alone. But I still had a pleasant enough conversation. I discovered that the owner already had a commercial arrangement with someone to collect on his property. The moral of that story is, your odds are low when chasing "well-known" treasures with perceived commercial values.
After you get permission, follow the rules, whatever they are! For example, if the approval is just for you alone, don't bring friends along without asking first. And don't even ask until some time has passed, you've delivered some polished rocks or other gratuities back to the landowner, and built a little bit of a relationship. If the owner is worried about anything, acknowledge that to them, be sensitive to the concern, and reassure them. This has worked well over some years with two successive owners of a 12,000-acre ranch in Wyoming.
Then, enjoy the fruits of your labors!
For example, for many years I found a lot of very good agates, quartzes, epidotes, and some petrified wood, on a square mile of cropland just 30 minutes from home. I sent several boxes of polished rocks to the owner's (company's) land analyst in Texas who granted me a Right of Entry, to a local project manager whose company leased the mineral rights on this parcel (and who wanted me to keep in touch about my visits), and to the farmer who leased the surface for dryland crops!
(Epilogue: That started in March 2010. I renewed access rights for a total of six years, with gaps, ending in 2017! I made dozens of trips, really enjoyed my "private stash", and occasionally took other people out there as my "agents" under the terms of the ROE.)