Mineral Prospecting and Placer Mining | A Defense Lawyer’s Viewpoint | The Criminal and Administrative Problems in Washington
Criminal Charges relating to Mineral Prospecting and Placer Mining
MINERAL PROSPECTING & PLACER MINING – Also known as Panning for Gold!
Prospecting and placer mining is an enjoyable, possibly lucrative, and well established past time in the State of Washington. Washington State has a long history of prospecting and people continue to be drawn to its allure. However, before starting your adventure, it is important to properly prepare to make sure the new venture is legal and you avoid being hassled and possibly face a criminal charge of Unlawful Hydraulic Project Activities.
The first step to legally prospecting is to determine where you would like to prospect and placer mine. Once you have a location in mind, you must then determine what jurisdiction it falls under and who owns it. The Washington State Department of Fish & Wildlife is the lead agency regulating the majority of fresh water mineral prospecting and placer mining locations because if improperly done, could negatively impact fish and their habitat. However, other State and Federal agencies may also have jurisdiction on a site. When it comes to Federal land, one of the key agencies to contact is the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM.) Exploring and prospecting land managed by BLM falls under BLM regulations that vary depending on the land in question. Basically, the more impactful your mining activity, the more it is regulated. For example, if the prospecting is essentially “casual use” with negligible disturbance, such as panning for gold by hand, then it should be permitted on most public land without advance notification.
Another agency that may need contacting is the US Forest Service if you would like to work in a National Forest. National Forest lands are either classified as public domain or acquired. If designated as public domain, then they are open to entry and mining claims under the General Mining Law of 1872. Prospecting on acquired lands, instead are not permitted per the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920. It is important to note that close to 30% of Washington public domain National Forrest lands have been congressionally or administratively withdrawn from mineral entry and prospecting so it is vital to thoroughly investigate the prospecting location in advance. For the casual prospector, it is a good idea to contact the nearest ranger station to find out if the area which caught your interest, is open to prospecting and if a notice of intent is required.
For any prospector in Washington, it is absolutely vital that they review the Gold and Fish pamphlet. This pamphlet not only provides extremely important information on what is permissible but it is also serves as a permit, like a Hydraulic Project Approval (HPA.) No application or fees are required but you must follow the rules listed in it and it is strongly recommended that you always have a copy with you while in the field and in some locations it is even required. If the location you would like to work is not listed in the Gold and Fish pamphlet, you can then file for an individual written HPA through the simplified application or through the Aquatic Protection Permitting System. If the request is for an ocean beach, the application for ocean beach mineral prospecting can also be used.
If a prospector is found to be violating the instructions in the pamphlet or is caught prospecting in a location not covered by it and has not obtained an individual written HPA, he can face the criminal charge of Unlawful Hydraulic Project Activities which carries a maximum penalty of a 364 days in jail and a $5,000 fine. Civil penalties could also be imposed for failure to comply, and if the violation continues, the fines could continue to accrue. These fines can be significant. If a fine is imposed, you may file a timely appeal but it is important to remember the civil penalties may continue to accrue during the appeal process unless it is stayed in writing by Fish & Wildlife. Failure to file a timely appeal will result in a final judgment against you.
As administrative and criminal defense lawyers we emphasize awareness that any interaction with government agents on State, Federal or Private Land should be treated as a criminal investigation by the prospector and any others in the party should abide by our opinion on giving statements to any officer when approached. As an old wise hunter once said, “the less said the better.” Anything you say can be used against you in a future case. Just listen, don’t talk and contact us soon as possible.
The consequences of these kinds of charges can be fought and/or mitigated, especially when a competent legal team is engaged early on in the process. Do not get caught unaware and make the situation worse: call and use experienced private representation.