Q: We have played at gold prospecting for a while now and thus enjoyed your column on gold prospecting as a hobby. But we FOUND GOLD THIS SUMMER!! Are we still allowed to file a claim?
A: You bet! First, determine what kind of federal land is involved – BLM, forest service, etc? Remember, you can not obtain a claim in many federal areas such as inside national parks, Indian Reservations, and military reservations and also on state and private property. Additionally, some forest service land and BLM areas have been withdrawn from being claimed by the public. Just check with the agency involved.
Once you have determined that you can obtain a valid claim at your site, then carefully examine physically your location to see if there is any evidence that it has already been appropriated by first seeing if the area has been properly marked. If someone appears to have "staked" a claim, then check at the federal center in Lakewood to see if there is a current claim and/or that all the requirements have been properly met. If no prior claim appears to overlap the area that you are interested in, then stake your claim site using wooden markers as directed in instructions that you can obtain from a variety of sources – the federal agency having jurisdiction over the property, prospecting clubs, books, etc.
There are several different kinds of claims but you probably should file a "placer claim" which can give you control and mineral rights on up to 20 acres. If you put together an "association" of up to 8 people, then your group can claim up to 160 acres.
The requirements vary a bit based upon the kind of claim you seek to obtain and the type of land involved but you should be able to follow through yourself without technical assistance, except for possibly getting some type of survey done. In general, record your claim in the county where the "find" is located and also file it with the federal agency, using the standard form and paying the required fees. On forest service land you may have to do additional things such as filing a notice of intent and plan of operation. But these kinds of things are all laid out for you in the instructions.
Once the process is done, you can only use the site for "mining." But that normally includes access across federal lands, use of the surface and even timber for "mining" purposes (only), and even possibly building fences and gates. Check with the federal agencies first, however. But as a panner, your actual impact and use of the property for "mining" purposes will be minimal. Don't forget about permits and when an environmental impact statement might be required.
And remember, it is still possible to get a "patent" (ownership deed to the land after obtaining your claim) which then makes this your own private land, just like any land you buy, so you can use it for any purpose besides mining and sell it as such too.
And the best part of all, even though you read about this in the Coloradoan, unlike the fairy garage mother featured in the advertising for the classified section of the paper, we in the local section do not expect you to share your good fortune with us.