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What kind of mementos am I allowed to collect from State and National parks in small quantities, if any? I am especially wondering about:

  • pebbles, shells, sea-urchin-skeletons, sand-dollar-skeletons (coastal State Parks)
  • pine cones (forested National Parks)
  • cholla-cactus-skeletons, rocks and minerals (desert State and National Parks)

Is it ever OK to take something living to plant at home, like cactus leaves?

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That surely differs per country. My grandmother was once fined for taking a stone from a forest in The Netherlands. What country are you thinking of? – gerrit Mar 20 '13 at 9:58
It would be nice if the answer was a wiki one so each user could append his knowledge on specific region or country – Amine Mar 20 '13 at 13:02
More than that, I imagine it also differs per national park in the same country, at least to some degree. – berry120 Mar 20 '13 at 14:08
What exactly do you mean by "allowed"? It seems like you're asking a legal question, but you tagged it ethics/etiquette? – Ryley Mar 20 '13 at 18:39
@Ryley: You bring up an excellent point! I originally was curious about the legality, but now that you mention it, I am interested in both. – DudeOnRock Mar 20 '13 at 18:47
up vote 33 down vote accepted

The old advice is to "Take nothing but pictures, and leave nothing but footprints".

Almost any amount of memento-taking is going to lead to some kind of impact in anything but the most isolated of areas.

The details of what is and isn't legal are going to vary with the exact area you're in -in the US, Wilderness Areas, a national forests, Bureau of Land Management's land, and state forests, all have different governing bodies and different sets of rules. Even different national parks are allowed to set their own rules. But I think they all prohibit you from taking mementos.

And, besides all that, I find that in this age of social networking and photo sharing sites, a handful of good pictures can capture the experiences of my trips better than physical stuff does, although that's purely subjective.

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Basically I agree, but isn't fishing legal in these areas in the US? E.g., in the Sierra, most of the lakes don't even naturally have fish; they were seeded back in the 50's with fish eggs dropped out of airplanes. I also sometimes eat wild onions or miner's lettuce in California; no idea whether this is legal. Collecting dead wood for fires is legal in many areas. – Ben Crowell Apr 30 '13 at 0:59
Good questions? Fishing may be an exception. You're right about the lakes being stocked. I'd be cautious about firewood - fires are restricted in many parks out west (some legal, some not). On the east coast, people are discouraged from taking firewood out of the county where they found / bought it, to reduce the spread of invasive species. – DavidR Apr 30 '13 at 13:47

Generally speaking in the US, you can collect as much as you want from the gift shops.

Otherwise, everything else is strictly forbidden.

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Excellent point. Its cheesy, but a t-shirt is a much better memento than a rare plant or a fossil. I was thinking of editing my post to say something along those lines. :) – DavidR Mar 21 '13 at 21:01
Plus this will give some additional revenue to the park or local people which may aid in conservation. – Sdry Mar 22 '13 at 9:38
@whatsisname: Great, short and simple, but expressing! – WedaPashi Mar 12 '14 at 8:07
@Sdry, I believe in most places any incremental revenue will go to whatever contractor runs the shop. – Reid May 15 at 3:46
@raid said contractor is possibly local but would definitely hire local people and in doing so help the local economy and economical value in the local social structure. This would help conservation more than no local people being hired because no one buying at the gift shop. Maybe less obvious in the US, but definitely contribution to conservation in most of the world. – Sdry May 15 at 22:54

Generally in a national part, national monument, or official wilderness area in the US, don't take anything. These areas are managed with preservation being a high or the highest goal. We simply can't have every human on earth take even a small rock. All parts of the environment are connected. No matter how harmless or inconsequential you think some item it, it is meaningful and important to some critter or to the ecosystem as a whole in large enough quantities.

The rules are different in national forests, which are public resources, although they must be used in a sustainable way. Some forests allow you to cut a certain amount of firewood, for example, during some season. Lots of forests allow hunting. There are areas where you are allowed to collect a certain type of rock. Some forest allow cutting of christmas trees. All these activities are regulated and usually limited. Hunting is only allowed at certain times and for certains species. The rock collecting is limited to some number or weight.

I don't think there is anything you are allowed to collect accross all the forests all the time. Each forest has their own rules, based on their own management plan. The bottom line is, assume you can't collect anything in a national forest unless you have asked and know exactly what can be collected under what conditions. A formal permit may be required, which may cost money. Penalties for violation can be steep.

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One of my favorite things to collect from National Parks is a stamp for my park passport. There are cancellation stamps in many national parks and sets of full-color stamps you can buy at the gift shop.

And please take the other answers to heart. Millions of us enjoy the parks system every year.

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I have a lot of experience with the federal lands, and the rules are pretty much the same between agencies, whether the Bureau of Land Management or the National Park Service or the US Forest Service.

The rule is: don't remove anything. There are some serious consequences, even a felony in some cases.

  • You can't take rocks or even pine cones. Or flowers.
  • Parts of animals are also illegal to remove - for example: deer antlers.
  • No disturbing archaeological sites or collecting artifacts. If someone messes with an archaeological site, this is a felony, for example.

I agree with DavidR, in that in this digital era, many things are shared better via video or photograph, as it can be more widely shared.

This may seem obvious, but this is for the collective good. Simply put, if we all took a flower, there wouldn't be any or a few flowers. I realize sounds overly simple, but the logic applies.

Not sure about state lands, but I'm sure similar laws apply.

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Actually you can sometimes take rocks. For example, there is a specific rock you are allowed to collect above Diamond Rim in the Tonto National Forest of AZ. There are limits on the number or weight and possibly time of year, but it is specifically legal within the stated limits. Good point about archeological sites. Disturbing those, let alone taking anything, is a serious federal offense in most cases. – Olin Lathrop Dec 11 '13 at 21:57

Legally the answer is "nothing" in the National Parks of Canada. I think the US is similar.

Ethically the best touchstone is the Kantian ethic: What would be the result of everyone doing this? As part of that, examine the renewal time, and the numbers of the thing in question and the number of visitors.

E.g. Taking the pine cone unless the pine is uncommon seems to me to be fine. A cone on the ground has already dispersed it's seeds. A cone is a byproduct. I'm removing a small amount of carbon from the environment. If campfires are allowed in an area, then removing a cone is not unreasonable. I would apply this to common shells on the beach too. They will soon be ground to dust.

I have several fossils that have come from our provincial forests. Mountain slopes where the fossil is common, or on eroding river banks. Tehir lifespan is short, once exposed.

Taking seeds of wildflowers again is fine -- my rule of thumb is to collect seeds from one plant in a clump of 100 plants, and to do so only a hundred yards from any trail. Even that would depend on it being a moderately low use area.

Removal of live plants is rarely successful, unless you have done your homework, understand their environment, and already have a created one back at the lab. This may be appropriate if you are a serious botanist trying to establish a breeding population of a plant. Again -- way off the beaten track, and never more than 1% of the visible population from wehre you stand.

A twig, a pebble, I don't see the problem, but I don't see the point either.

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It's always okay to take away trash!

I'm not just being tongue in cheek here. Many US National Parks (and other protected areas) have more latitude for beach-combing; manmade items like sea-glass may be considered trash / non-natural additions and be fair game to remove. Again, you'll want to note the specific regulations for the Park you're in; and of course be attentive to man-made items that could be artifacts and to items that might have living creatures attached to them.

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In Rock Hound State Park near Deming, Luna County, South-Western New Mexico, USA, you are allowed to collect rocks. This is highly unusual. I read it in various sources. The state park website seems very limited, but from the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources:

It was established in 1966 as the first park in the United States that allowed collecting of rocks and minerals for personal use. Each visitor is allowed to collect as much as 15 lb (6.8 kg) of rocks and minerals from the 1,100-acre (4.45 km²) park; mineral dealers are not allowed to collect for sale.

So, if your ways ever pass through southern New Mexico (and why wouldn't they?), feel free to fill your backpack with small rocks at Rock Hound State Park.

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You may collect rocks or even use a metal detector in national forests, which have different rules than national parks. It would have been helpful if people had answered with actual legal facts rather than what they think or believe should be right, but then again, you did ask about national parks, not national forests.

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Do you have any sources that confirm this? – gerrit Jan 11 '15 at 21:56
This document pertains to recreational rock and mineral collection – Chris Mendez Jan 12 '15 at 1:24

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