Treasure hunting in Michigan just got a little bit easier, under new land use rules approved by Department of Natural Resources Director Rebecca Humphries in April that allow recreational gold prospecting on state land.
But just because gold panning and sluicing now are permitted on state land, doesn’t mean this relatively inexpensive hobby comes no strings attached. What makes recreational gold prospecting a true treasure hunting adventure is the amount of time and effort each participant must invest in the hobby before ever heading out to the stream.
Although the only equipment needed for gold prospecting is a gold pan, something that can be purchased for less than $10, a significant investment comes in the many hours of research and planning that are required to make sure each outing is safe, legal and maybe even lucrative. Preparation involves reading and marking maps, researching historical documents and getting permission to prospect from the owners of the surface and mineral rights.
"With respect to state lands, it’s important to remember that ownership of state land may be split, meaning the state could own the surface rights but someone else could own the mineral rights on a parcel of land,” said Milt Gere, DNR mineral and land management geologist. "But provided you have checked into the ownership and determined the state owns both the surface and mineral rights to the land, you may collect gold as a hobby.”
In addition to making sure the state owns both the surface and mineral rights to the land, recreational gold prospectors also must make sure the stream is not a designated trout stream, natural river or within an established natural area, or does not contain mussel beds. If all these criteria are met, panning can take place with no further permit or permission necessary.
For assistance in locating this information online, recreational prospectors are encouraged to go to the DNR Web site at www.michigan.gov/dnr and select minerals in the drop down menu for programs on the Forests, Lands & Water page.
Once this upfront research and planning is completed, panning for gold can take place at anytime of year. However, recreational prospectors wishing to use a sluice box to make their panning more efficient will need to follow a few additional rules.
The DNR Land Use Order allowing recreational prospecting limits sluice boxes to hand-operated models no larger than 52 inches long, 12 inches wide and 6.5 inches deep. Also, the DNR regulations do not allow dredging, excavating, digging or other disturbance to the river bank during recreational panning or sluicing.
In conjunction with the DNR’s rules, the Department of Environmental Quality requires a permit for sluice boxes. The permit application, which costs $50, can be found online at www.michigan.gov/jointpermit.
While the permit limits the use of sluice boxes to the months of July and August and requires the applicant to identify a specific 300-foot area where the sluice box will be used, recreational prospectors or those interested in the activity should keep in mind that there is no permit required for panning, which makes panning the simplest way to get into the hobby.
Another aspect of recreational gold prospecting that represents a serious investment is the amount of time most people will spend on the stream panning sand and sediment to find even a flake or two of gold.
Luckily for the hobby prospector, there is a history of successful bedrock gold mining in Michigan, and treasure hunters tend to have the best luck in areas with known gold deposits. According to historical documents, there have been 74 gold mines in Michigan, all of them in the Upper Peninsula. But the glaciers moved tons of sand and gravel that also carried some gold to many parts of the state.
Which means that while a significant investment of time goes into attempting recreational gold prospecting, there always is the possibility that enough gold will show up in your pan to make it all worth it.
Under the DNR’s regulations, recreational gold prospectors are limited to collecting no more than one-half troy ounce of gold per year (roughly .55 ounces), which currently is worth more than $400 — much more than enough to pay for the cost of buying equipment, maps and other resources needed for a gold-panning hobby.
"Sure, the chances of finding that much are really slim to none,” said Gere. "But you aren’t out there to get rich. You’re out there for the fun of the hunt, to play around in the outdoors and try something new. When you actually find more than a flake or two of gold in one day, well, I guess that’s the ideal that keeps gold panners coming back for more.”