Several times throughout the course of the year I am contacted by individuals asking me about metal detecting or relic hunting at ghost towns, numerous times I’ve also had individuals who want to share their finds with me, or ask that I share them on my Facebook page or on blog. Unbeknownst to many, metal detecting and relic hunting at ghost towns, mining camps, old structures, etc. on public lands is a felony offense.

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It has been my standard practice to politely inform these people of the Federal laws protecting historic sites over 50-years-old, and inform them of the harsh consequences they face if caught in the act- A felony charge with fines ranging from $500 to $20,000 and/or up to one-year in prison. In most cases those who have contacted me are unaware of these laws, and thank me for alerting them prior to their planned adventures. In some instances however, I get the more confrontational types who want to challenge me (as if I am the one who wrote the law) and argue the law. And, often, I get the lame old “Well I won’t get caught” or “Does anybody really enforce it?” response, which is discouraging.

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A rusted button at an old mining camp, tempting to pocket, but by the word of the law it is illegal

Lately, I have experienced a noticeable increase in people asking about metal detecting and relic hunting at ghost towns. One of the cool, behind the scenes features of my blog is a record of “search terms” people have used while visiting my blog, and “metal detecting ghost towns” has become a popular search term much to my dismay. I understand the allure of snooping around an old cabin or town site and seeing what you can find- I’ve been there, done it. It is a romantic vision in many of our minds that we’ll be the one to stumble across a rusted Colt pistol, or an old gold coin under the floorboards of a cabin. We are not vandals out to destroy anything, our intentions are good and it is a fun hobby, we are focused people looking for something cool to hang on the wall. I get it, I’ve done it, but I now know we can’t do it. Relic hunters, as harmless as our intentions are on the surface, take a severe toll on our historic sites, and, by the word of the law, relic hunters and metal detectors are one in the same with the vandal who tears down the wall, or the arsonist who burns the old building. If it is on public land, i.e., National Forest, State Lands, or BLM lands, we can look, but we can’t keep, and we can’t excavate. If we find relics we can enjoy them, but we have to leave them at the site where we found them.

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It is frustrating, and there is great temptation, after all, who will notice if I take a handful of square nails, or it won’t hurt that building at all if I take that old doorknob, or somebody threw these bottles in the dump a hundred years ago, what’s the big deal if I take them home? If it was only one of us who did that, it would not be a big deal, but multiply that by one hundred or one thousand and in a decade there will be nothing left of our ghost towns and historic sites- And this does not even take into account the natural ravages of time and weather, forest fires and floods, and the still rampant vandalism and arson that has always plagued our ghost towns.

I myself was unaware of these laws until the last ten years or so,  and I myself am guilty of taking objects I found on public lands prior to my knowledge of the laws. There are several on the books- the American Antiquities Act of 1906 and numerous revisions to said law, the National Historic Preservation Act 1966 with revisions in 1980 and 1992, the Archaeological and Historic Preservation Act, Archaeological Resources Protection Act, Abandoned Shipwreck Act, and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

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The Wapiti Mine Office and General Store 2016

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The Wapiti Mine Office and General Store after vandals ripped it down 2017

All of these laws were designed to protect our cultural heritage and our Nation’s rich history, so that it may be enjoyed by our children, grandchildren and generations yet to come, but many do not know about these laws, and some do not care, viewing the laws as largely unenforceable measures, and governmental overreach.

As my involvement in the historic site/ghost town field has grown over the years I have become acutely aware of the reason for, and the need for these laws- Recently, in the last three years, I have witnessed the destruction of several historic structures in Colorado, I have witnessed a family of four, mother, father, and two young children, deface an historic and clearly marked “PROTECTED” mill building with graffiti, I have seen an entire rusted automobile disappear from the Sego ghost town in Utah…after it had been defaced with graffiti the year before, and I have stood in shocked disbelief as I watched a family from Minnesota climb over a well-marked, protective fence erected by the Forest Service so they could “touch” ancient Native American rock paintings with their hands.

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This old coupe which had sat at Sego, Utah for 60 years was illegally hauled away in 2017.

As our society grows increasingly ignorant, uneducated, and self-serving, the need for these protective laws will only increase, unfortunately, enforcing these laws is nearly impossible without the help of others- As ghost-towners, road trippers, and history buffs, we all need to help spread the word that metal detecting, relic hunting, defacing, damaging, or taking anything, even the tiniest nail or shard of pottery from historic sites over 50 years located on public lands is illegal. Permits to metal detect and relic hunt at historic sites are available and are Federally monitored- Normally, permits are only issued to actual, historic or archaeological research parties, and not private citizens. What you do on private land is entirely up to the discretion of the land owner and the parties involved.

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Vandalism right next to a sign asking visitors NOT to destory the historic Magnolia Mill in Montgomery, Colorado.  This is not art, this is vandalism.

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Furthermore, we are the first line of defense of America’s history, our history- If you see someone relic hunting, defacing, or destroying a historic site, either kindly inform them of the law, or if you do not want to confront someone, get photos and their license plate number and turn it over to the Forest Service in the area. It is a difficult thing to do, but the Forest Service can not possibly patrol every site every day, so it up to us to protect our historic and cultural heritage.

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A family I witnessed defacing the Magnolia Mill right in front of the signs. I turned their license plate number into the Fairplay Ranger Station and they launched an investigation.

Take only pictures. Enjoy our heritage, don’t destroy it!

American Antiquities Act of 1906

16 USC 431-433

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That any person who shall appropriate, excavate, injure, or destroy any historic or prehistoric ruin or monument, or any object of antiquity, situated on lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States, without the permission of the Secretary of the Department of the Government having jurisdiction over the lands on which said antiquities are situated, shall, upon conviction, be fined in a sum of not more than five hundred dollars or be imprisoned for a period of not more than ninety days, or shall suffer both fine and imprisonment, in the discretion of the court.

Sec. 2. That the President of the United States is hereby authorized, in his discretion, to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments, and may reserve as a part thereof parcels of land, the limits of which in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected: Provided, That when such objects are situated upon a tract covered by a bonafied unperfected claim or held in private ownership, the tract, or so much thereof as may be necessary for the proper care and management of the object, may be relinquished to the Government, and the Secretary of the Interior is hereby authorized to accept the relinquishment of such tracts in behalf of the Government of the United States.

Sec. 3. That permits for the examination of ruins, the excavation of archaeological sites, and the gathering of objects of antiquity upon the lands under their respective jurisdictions may be granted by the Secretaries of the Interior, Agriculture, and War to institutions which the may deem properly qualified to conduct such examination, excavation, or gathering, subject to such rules and regulation as they may prescribe: Provided, That the examinations, excavations, and gatherings are undertaken for the benefit of reputable museums, universities, colleges, or other recognized scientific or educational institutions, with a view to increasing the knowledge of such objects, and that the gatherings shall be made for permanent preservation in public museums.

Sec. 4. That the Secretaries of the Departments aforesaid shall make and publish from time to time uniform rules and regulations for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of this Act.

Approved, June 8, 1906

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