Rock collecting: when is it ethical? When isn’t it?

The answer to that is a complicated yes and no.

I was asked the question recently whether it was ethical to collect rocks. Is it immoral to gather them and take them home so that no one else can enjoy them? Can beaches be picked clean of rocks, leaving nothing behind for others to enjoy? Is the hobby of rock hounding ethical?

The answer to that is a complicated yes and no. Certainly, when you pick up a rock and take it home, it’s no longer there for others to enjoy. It’s all a bit greedy and selfish, isn’t it? But it’s part of our nature- we like to collect pretty things. We’re not the only animals on Earth that do that, either. But yes, beaches do get picked over when they’re heavily visited. Within a few years, a popular spot for rocks can become a difficult place to find anything nice at all. Visit some of the best-known agate hunting beaches in the UP someday. You’ll be hard-pressed to find an agate anymore and you’ll wonder why. And then you’ll see a dozen other people doing the same thing as you and you’ll have your answer.

The desert southwest is a case study in this. When settlers began arriving in the 1800s in Arizona, the landscape was littered with petrified wood. It was literally everywhere! Over the decades, pieces were collected and the land was virtually picked clean. One of the few remaining places that you could find any lying about was made into Petrified Forest National Park.

Petrified Forest National Park

Still, collectors came and picked the protected land so that there are only really a few nice pieces left in the entire national park. It’s pathetic. Today there are surveillance cameras watching every corner of the park, every information kiosk warns of the jail time and fines you’ll face for touching a rock, security wanders every visited area, authorities search your bags and check your car, park rangers watch you like a hawk. I hate that park- it feels like you’re walking a prison yard under armed guard.

This goes back millennia. Antarctica is covered with meteorites. Literally covered. Like you can just walk around and pick them up, they’re all over the place. They’ve been raining down for millions of years and just accumulating on the surface. So why only Antarctica? Because all of the metalliferous meteorites elsewhere were collected by pre-Iron Age peoples who then hammered that metal into tools. The dagger of Tutankhamun is made of meteor metal. The landscape across Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas was littered with meteors a few thousand years ago. By and large, they were picked clean.

Tutankhamun’s meteoric iron dagger

This is why I have to tell every Michigan Rockhound, no- you did not find a meteor. The reason is that they were all found by Native Americans thousands of years ago! They were made into tools and ceremonial objects. They were all collected, there is nothing left to find. Like the petrified wood of the southwest, they are not replaced. They are gone forever.

But nothing lasts forever. The rocks you find on the beach are temporary, too. They are in the process of being broken down by the waves when you find them. Each one will eventually become beach sand. And many only make brief appearances at the surface. The beautiful Petoskey you found was only found by you because it was buried under the sand for months until it was uncovered this morning and it would have been buried under more sand tonight if it hadn’t been found by you. And some rocks are very fragile. I have several extremely rare specimens in my collection from exotic locales that would have been destroyed by the elements years ago if I had allowed them to remain exposed where I found them. Today they are well preserved in my collection, but they would have been forever lost if left. The Great Lakes rock tumbler is a bit slower than that, but most of your pebbles on the beach will be sand in the next couple hundred years at least- some sooner.

And rocks are renewed, as well. Below the surface, the processes that created our gorgeous specimens are continuing and will continue long after our species becomes extinct. And rock renewal goes on at a smaller timescale, too. I once picked a small section of beach clean of greenstones- I found about a dozen. But I was surrounded by amygdaloidal basalt that was still chock full of greenstones that I refused to touch out of principle. Over the next few decades, dozens- maybe hundreds more greenstones will weather out and fall onto the beach. And the ones I collected would have been tumbled to sand in that time. Instead, they’re in my collection.

So, it’s complex. Is it ethical to collect? Sometimes yes and sometimes no. I try to think about whether the pieces I’m collecting will be renewed/replaced, whether I’m depriving a large number of people of enjoying it and whether the piece would even survive for others to enjoy if left in place. It’s complicated, but I try to be as ethical as possible about it. Hopefully, everyone else will, too.

Geologist, a lover of all science, father of a young child, published writer on Forbes and Mental Floss

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