Metal Detecting Laws
State, federal, and local governments have passed many laws that intentionally or incidentally impact metal detecting opportunities.
The goal of such laws is to protect sensitive archaeological sites and public lands. Though lawmakers aren’t specifically out to obstruct hobbyists, the legislation often affects excavation and removal of objects — key parts of a treasure hunting adventure.
Navigating complex code can be daunting and frustrating, but having to leave behind a new find is even worse. Take the time before you explore to find out what legal jurisdiction an area falls under and what permissions you need to discover and recover items.
Look into rules regarding digging tools, and respect any restrictions in your area. Unfilled holes are unsightly, dangerous to people and livestock, and are detrimental to the continued use of detectors.
Detectorists will find the most freedom when exploring private property.
To promote the best possible community relations, metal detector hobbyists need to obtain written permission to hunt on private property. Property owners deserve proper respect for their land, and you have an opportunity to showcase fellow treasure hunters as ethical and responsible stewards of the outdoors.
When seeking an owner’s approval, explain your purpose, methods, techniques to minimize impact, and timeline.
U.S. law includes a number of legislative acts that affect how federal lands are enjoyed and impacted. These acts impact metal detecting because finds typically must be excavated. Even if they are just below the surface, some amount of digging is usually required.
An early piece of legislation, the 1906 American Antiquities Act, gave the president the power to make federal lands protected sites. Its intention was to stop the disturbance of prehistoric Native American grounds and ruins by the day’s treasure seekers, who were known as pot hunters because shards of pottery were prized finds.
Lands described under the power of this act could no longer have artifacts removed freely because the excavation of antiquities from such lands would require a permit. Known and marked historical sites, historical parks, and historical monuments are typically off-limits to all metal detecting.
The 1966 National Historic Preservation Act is a far-reaching work of preservation by the federal government, intended to protect historical and archaeological sites.
This created the National Register of Historic Places and although initially focused on structures, this act also impacts rural areas that may have historical significance and further promotes the stringent preservation and cataloging of Native American cultural items.
The 1997 Archaeological Resources Protection Act further governs any excavation on federal and Native American lands and controls the removal of archaeological artifacts from those sites.
Laws vary from state to state, but all 50 allow metal detecting in some form on public lands.
For example, some state departments of Parks and Recreation maintain a list of dozens of sites that allow metal detecting without a permit. These spots include popular beach, field, and forested areas but exclude all protected archaeological sites.
However, the pre-approved places still are limited by additional criteria, such as “Parking lot, picnic area, and trail surfaces” only.
Any detecting that happens outside these neatly drawn lines may still be open to metal detecting but first, require a permit. Ask the nearest park office or inquire at the closest office about detecting possibilities and obtaining a permit.
States have further, diverse restrictions. Some states include all shipwrecks, for instance, as protected sites or digging tools are limited to only an ice pick, screwdriver or small knife.
Code of Ethics
In order to protect your hobby, it’s important to follow the metal detecting code of ethics-
- Follow all local, state, and federal laws related to metal detecting.
- Respect private property and never metal detect an area without permission.
- Pack out what you pack in, and properly dispose of any trash you find.
- Leave all gates, structures, and personal property as they were before.
- Fill in every hole you dig. Leave no trace you were there.
- Never dig in a way that harms vegetation, wildlife, or changes natural features.
- Report any significant historical artifacts to local authorities.
- Be an ambassador for the hobby by being courteous and thoughtful at all times.
Another thing to keep in mind is that people will probably ask questions when they see you out metal detecting. By following these guidelines you’ll set a good example for detectorists everywhere, and you might even spark someone’s interest in the hobby.