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
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    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
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    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
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    lnt.org – Michael Hampton May 10 '14 at 16:05
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    I don't think the idea of taking a small insiginicant item is what they're trying to prevent, but if every visitor to, lets say, the rocky mountain national park this year took a pine cone that's 3443501 pine cones take, 3443501 seeds that have potentials to grow a tree that could outlive you. If everyone took something, we wouldn't really be protecting these protected areas. Besides there are already enough people who damage the forest with fires, cutting down trees, etc. take nothing but pictures is part of the leave no trace philosophy. – tsturzl Aug 11 '15 at 6:15

12 Answers 12

up vote 39 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
  • Some national parks in Alaska allow you to take mementos - see my answer. – pacoverflow Jun 3 at 22:25

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

Otherwise, everything else is strictly forbidden.

  • 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
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    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
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    @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 '16 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 '16 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.

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.

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.

  • Pretty much all of these acts are forbidden in most national parks/forests. The idea is that, yes, they are harmless if just you do it, but add 100 more people and that clump of 100 wildflowers is gone. Unfortunately, these places typically see 10,000s of people each year, not just 100. – theforestecologist Jun 7 at 17:01
  • Additionally, you should never move dead or living organic matter (especially plants, insects, or firewood) from one location to another because of the high probability of bringing (often unwanted) passengers. This is how fungal, viral and insect pests/infections spread. While you're at it, start cleaning your hiking boots, too! :p – theforestecologist Jun 7 at 17:03
  • Oh come on. How many people get 100 yards from the trail? And no, once you have only 99 plants in the clump, by my rule, you can't take any. So if everyone followed that rule, there wouldn't be a problem. Most park's travel density falls drastically off trail. In Canada Jaspar Park has 3 different sets of rules: One for any activity within 2 miles of the highway, one for established trails, and one for back country. – Sherwood Botsford Jun 8 at 20:48
  • In Willmore Wilderness Provincial Park most trips I have never seen anyone once I was 5 miles from the trailhead. – Sherwood Botsford Jun 8 at 20:49
  • National forests (in the US) and provincial forests (Canada) are much more relaxed. Most allow motor vehicles, campfires, hunting, fishing, wood cutting (for firewood) christmas tree cutting are all allowed. – Sherwood Botsford Jun 8 at 20:51

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.

  • Not always. Some of those trash piles have been there long enough to become archeological sites. – Mark Feb 7 '17 at 2:56

Most answers curiously omit a very dangerous reason why removing anything should be illegal, unless designated "affirmative" (that is, you are explicitly given permission to take away). You don't mention where you intend to take your mementos, and dangers lurk here as well.

All rocks, animal parts, wood, seeds, flowers, food, etc contain things local to the environment.

Removing an item can have the deleterious effect of defacing the area from which you take things. Burial sites may contain items that appear to any, other than archaeologists, as "just a stone". You can alter the movement of streams and other waterways, damage an animal/bird/reptile habitat. As mentioned, if everyone took a flower or a rock, then eventually, the area would be scavenged into oblivion.

Importing an item to your own area can have the deleterious effect of bringing in blight/disease, or an invasive species (whether insect, microbial, or plant). In many of the scout camps we go to, there are strict rules that require us to use only local wood for burning - we are forbidden from using wood we bring from elsewhere, including that which we bought from a supermarket. We either use what we find on the ground, or, as in many camps, the forester will cut wood for us and we can use that. In New York, you may not bring in wood from further than 50 miles, and if you bring in any wood at all (within 50 miles), you must provide source documentation.

Frequently Asked Questions for Firewood Regulation and 2012 Revision (Department of Environmental Conservation)

Forests (Department of Environmental Conservation)

There's even a quarantine:

EAB Regulations and Quarantines (Department of Environmental Conservation)

Just the mere attempt to get at artifacts - even pictures! - can deface an area that is historically or ecologically important or sensitive. Human presence near some wildlife sites can have negative effects, like bird nests which can cause birds to abandon eggs. Turtle and other reptile eggs can be destroyed. Damage to a beaver dam can have downstream effects.

And sometimes, merely touching things can be dangerous, particularly with animal parts. Here, rabies, parasites, anthrax, and other diseases are high-risk to human interaction. So, leave the antlers, skulls, snake heads, and turtle shells alone.

Oh, and animals? Good luck trying to take a dead mountain lion or eagle you find on a trail head and stuff it. Taxidermists are forbidden by law to process a protected animal - even if you find it already dead. There's permits, paper work, red tape, and bureaucracy that are required to do this.

Taxidermists & Federal Law (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

You specifically mention taking a live plant and replanting it at home. You may be allowed to remove from one area, but be prohibited from importing it to another. In fact, transport across country boundaries is generally illegal. It's not unusual to try to take home some plant or animal product you purchased at a gift shop - like a sea shell, starfish, pine cone, snake head, or some other animal or plant by-product, only to be told by customs you cannot bring it on the plane or boat. Even some foods are generally illegal to take across borders. Food which is processed into oblivion - like soda or milk - is usually okay. Or canned foods. But raw food? Or dried jerky or grain? Conch shells from Barbados? Dried starfish from Australia? Sand dollars from Martinique? Or a bottle of wine with a dead snake in it from Vietnam? Or that dried corn husk from Mexico to make tamales? It all could be confiscated, even if you purchased it from a super market or gift shop.

Conversely, you may be encouraged to take (or rather, destroy) things, but would generally be prohibited from taking anywhere else. Kudzu is an infamous example, such as in South Carolina where at one point a few years back the governor declared war on the invasive plant. All culling by any means available was encouraged. So you were allow to kill/destroy as much of it as you find, you just aren't allowed to bring it anywhere - because those places likely have kudzu infestations themselves.

And as to food: Sometimes, it's not about the danger to the environment, or to yourself or others. Sometimes, it's about the damage to corporations. Yep: Try going to a foreign country and bring in a food product (like seeds) which are not genetically engineered to produce fruit without seeds. Monsanto spent billions convincing us that seedless watermelons are better because, well, who wants to eat seeds?? - when the real issue is they want you to be buying their seeds year after year. Seeds will be confiscated at customs checkpoints.

Along the lines of damage to corporate bottom lines, there's also the damage to government bottom lines, too. Sure, alcohol is not a memento you're going to find. But tobacco leaves? Our car got searched because a dog hit on tobacco. We were allowed to keep the cigarettes because the woman proved she bought them legally. But the customs officer (or whatever they're called when they're on the reservations) told us that all tobacco products are subject to confiscation if we can't prove we paid tax on it. And then there's the drug plants, like cocoa, marijuana, poppies, and various mushrooms, which I'm sure you didn't intend to include as mementos, but they nevertheless fall into your category of taking live plants and transporting them somewhere else.

In the end, you may think you are contributing to a species by propagating them, or making your house guests aware of what you've found. But you may be doing more harm to the area you took them from, or the area into which you brought them, or to the people whose livelihoods rely on them and you took or stole from them.

So, besides mentioning your intentions with your mementos, you need to be up on the local laws of the place you're taking things from; the laws of the place you're taking things to; and the laws of the places through which you travel to transport things, all in order to know whether such a thing is allowed to be taken to or from. It's just not feasible to answer here with anything more reasonable other than "you should not remove anything". (And be careful about those pictures).

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    I liked your thorough and well-written answer, except the first four words. – jsf80238 Aug 11 '17 at 18:16

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.

In England and Wales, except where prohibited by other law, you have a common law right to collect the "Four Fs" for personal use: fruit, foliage, flowers and fungi. You don't have this right if you're trespassing, but it applies in any area where you can lawfully be, which includes national parks.

  • In the United States, it's generally forbidden in national parks (but there are exceptions), generally permitted in national forests (but there are exceptions), and state parks could go either way. – Mark Feb 8 '17 at 3:54

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.

According to the National Park Service, collecting items from national parks is prohibited, with 2 exceptions:

Collecting, rockhounding, and gold panning of rocks, minerals, and paleontological specimens, for either recreational or educational purposes is generally prohibited in all units of the National Park System (36 C.F.R. § 2.1(a) and § 2.5(a)).

There are two exceptions to the general prohibition. Limited recreational gold panning is allowed in the Whiskeytown unit of the Whiskeytown-Shasta-Trinity National Recreation Area in California, in accordance with regulations at 36 CFR § 7.91.

The second exception involves some Alaska park units, where surface collection by hand (including hand-held gold pans) and for personal recreational use only, of rocks and minerals (except for silver, platinum, gemstones, and fossils) is allowed in accordance with 36 CFR § 13.20(c). Shovels, pickaxes, sluice boxes, and dredges may not be used to collect these items. If collecting these resources is likely have a significant adverse impact on park resources or visitor enjoyment, the park superintendent will prohibit or restrict collection.

I have found the item collection policies of all 8 national parks in Alaska.

Denali National Park

Their web page says the following:

Leave the backcountry as you found it; do not take home rocks, artifacts, antlers, animal remains or flowers as souvenirs. Feel free to eat edible plants and berries for personal consumption.

Gates of the Arctic National Park

Their web page says the following:

It is illegal to remove most natural objects, including plants and flowers, as well as cultural artifacts from any National Park Service lands.

Natural objects of beauty or interest, such as antlers or fossils, should be left for others to discover and enjoy. Antlers also provide an important calcium source for small mammals.

Gates of the Arctic has been inhabited for thousands of years. Decendants of ancient residents still use the land and its resources to lead a subsistance lifes. Any items that you find such as traps, tools, firepits, etc., that appear recent, may be parts of historical or prehistoric cultural sites. Please do not disturb things that are even potentially cultural or historic structures or artifacts. Please report such sites to park staff so they can be surveyed.

Glacier Bay National Park

Their web page says the following:

Do not destroy, injure, or remove plants, rocks, feathers, occupied shells or other features. Only the collection of the following is permitted: unoccupied seashells, all edible berries and fruits, edible mushrooms, and clams or mollusks taken in accordance with state regulations.

The harassing, injuring, or killing of any wildlife is prohibited. Help wildlife remain wild by never feeding any animal, including squirrels and gulls.

Possessing, destroying, injuring, defacing, removing, digging, or otherwise disturbing cultural and archeological resources is prohibited.

Katmai National Park

Their web page says the following:

Nuts, berries, and unoccupied seashells can be collected for personal use. Collecting artifacts, rocks, antlers, or other natural and cultural resources is prohibited. Collecting fossils on state or federal lands is prohibited.

Kenai Fjords National Park

Their web page says the following:

Can I mine for gold?

Recreational gold panning is permitted in park rivers and streams. Disturbance of soil or subsurface areas is prohibited, so the use of shovels, picks, explosives, sluice boxes, suction dredges, etc. is not allowed.

May I collect rocks?

Recreational rock collecting by hand (no tools) is permitted.

May I collect mushrooms, nuts, berries, etc.?

Yes, small quantities of these items may be collected by hand for personal use. No tools are allowed, and commercial harvesting is prohibited.

Is hunting, fishing, and trapping allowed in the park?

Fishing is allowed in accordance with state laws. Hunting is not allowed. Trapping is not allowed. Subsistence hunting is not allowed.

Kobuk Valley National Park

Their web page says the following:

Leave any natural items or artifacts just as you find them - bring home pictures instead.

Lake Clark National Park

Their web page says the following:

Removing historic artifacts, fossils, antlers/horns, skulls, plants, rocks, etc. is not allowed. Leave them for the next visitor to discover and enjoy.

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

Their web page says the following (see the web page for more details including what quantities are allowed):

Berries, mushrooms, and plants may be gathered for personal use. They may not be sold.

Driftwood, seashells, and dead wood for firewood may be gathered.

Plants and minerals may be gathered for traditional ceremonies done by Native Americans.

Recreational gold-panning and collection of small rocks is allowed. Visitors may not use metal detectors or hand tools to dig in the ground. Rocks may not be sold.

Silver, platinum, gemstones, and fossils may NOT be collected.

Antlers and horns may NOT be collected.

Threatened & Endangered species may NOT be collected.

Cave formations may NOT be collected.

Archeological items may NOT be collected.

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