Each year thousands of claims across the West are forfeited by their owners. The Bureau of Land Management requires annual filings and fees to maintain ownership of a claim. If these forms aren't filed the BLM will consider the claim abandoned. Abandoned claims are available for new location.
The Western Mining Alliance tracks these forfeited claims and each year publishes a list, called the Claims Report, for each state in the West. This list provides the complete listing of claims forfeited the prior year by their owners. These areas are sometimes available for new location. Early in the season the Western Mining Alliance will publish an "Advanced List" meaning the information is being published even prior to BLM publishing it and those who are willing to do a little research have access to information which can lead them to some very good properties before anyone else knowing they're available.
To give you some idea of the data we're looking at, here's the current listing of forfeited claims, and claims which are pending final status by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
If you want to locate your own mining claim, start with the historical records and determine where the major gold districts were. The old miners checked every stream, gulch and ravine across the West, there is little chance you're going to find an undiscovered source of gold. You'll do much better by reading where the old timers did well, and focusing on those areas.
A lot of gold was lost through the sluice boxes from the hydraulic mines. In the early operations loss rates could be as high as 20% but the higher the amount of quartz, clay or conglomerate, the higher the loss often well exceeding 20%. Gold on quartz was often washed right through the sluice box as gold will "float". The action of the winter storms, and the constant grinding of the river gravels quickly broke this gold free from the conglomerate, or quartz and this gold is now resting in the bottom of the creeks waiting on the dredger to recover.
Much of the gold recovery from the hydraulic mines was very fine. Very fine gold means a higher percentage of losses. Your recovery system on your dredge will catch this fine gold if you tune your dredge for the right angle and speed. Pay attention when dredging the hydraulic tailings areas. The majority of the gold you recover will be fine so ensure you're not blowing it right through your box.
A good place to start your search is the hydraulic pits and determine where they washed their tailings. Often it's a small ravine which leads to a larger river. These are good sources of gold.
Do your research then vist the USGS online map store. You can download PDF maps for free and save yourself a lot of money. I still like the paper maps for doing actual field work and you can order these for $8.00 each once you've narrowed down your search area.
All the USGS maps have locations in both latitude and longitude and the Public Land Survey System (PLSS). Mining claims are located by PLSS which includes meridian, township, range, section and aliquot part. If you want to file a claim you need to be familiar with this system.
People who are experienced in filing claims know they can, with a high degree of precision, locate a mining claim to within a few yards of the boundary. It takes some getting used to reading MTRS and a little more experience to actually be able to write it.
A meridian is an arbitrary point on the ground established by the first surveyors. For example, California has three meridians. The Mount Diablo Meridian (MDM) begins on the top of Mt. Diablo near the Bay area. It was established as the north/south east/west starting point.
Townships are measured from a baseline as either north or south of the baseline. Townships are number sequentially, so the first township would be 1 North, the second 2 North and so on. Ranges are numbered sequentially to the east or west of the baseline. So you have range 1 east, range 2 east and so on. A township is uniquely identified by its location either north and south, and by its range number. So to identify a unique township you would write Township 21 North, Range 8 East, Mount Diablo Meridian.
A township is generally a 36 square mile section of land which makes it a pretty big area. The township is further divided into sections. Each section is generally one square mile and generally there are 36 sections in a township. Sections are numbered "as the cow plows." This means starting with number one they are sequentially numbered going west to number 6. Then the next section south of number six is number seven and the numbering goes back east until number 12. This continues until section 36. A section is 640 acres, or one square mile.
This is still a big section of land, especially considering the most acreage one person can claim is 20 acres. The sections can further be divided into quarters which are labeled northeast, southeast, southwest and northwest (NE, SE, SW, NW). This is a 160 acre plot of land. These sections can further be divided into quadrants, and further still until you literally get down to a single acre (or less). So to identify a 20 acre parcel you would write the NE1/4, of the SE 1/4 of the NE 1/4 of Section 2, Township 21 North, Range 8 East. The first quarter brings you to 160 acres, the second quarter brings you to 40 acres and the third quarter brings you to 10 acres.
It used to be common for people to try to claim as much acreage as they could. With the price of maintenance fees this isn't very wise. According to the law you are supposed to only claim the land holding the minerals, and nothing else. Sometimes you'll see claims listed for sale by the amount of acreage such as "160 acre mining claim for sale." This only makes sense if you're moving material through a trommel with heavy equipment. If you are dredging you are only concerned with the amount of acreage which is gold bearing, this is typically only the river bed.
There are some decent overlays which provide you the PLSS such as Google Earth and ARCGis, if your just looking for a single claim you don't need to spend an awful lot of time trying to figure out overlays. Just use a map and a straight edge and you'll do just fine.
Once you've completed your historical research you're ready to begin working with maps.
Find your district on the map. Know what type of mining they were doing in the district, that will make a difference in where to look. While the big rivers will replenish gold, the smaller ravines and gulches will not, at least not to the same degree.
As an example a few summers ago a couple of us decided we wanted to check out a particular district which was well known for gold. We read the history of the district and we knew the miners did very well working the smaller creeks and gulches. We even had an old sketch of monitors washing the hillsides and water flumes carrying water.
All indications were this was a hydraulic operation and the natural assumption is they were working the tertiary gravels. If this was true then we knew the stream in the valley should be a good place to look for gold which was washed from the hydraulic operations.
We started low on the stream and spent the day panning our way up to its headwaters without so much as a flake of gold to show for our efforts. You would swear the area was devoid of gold yet there were signes everywhere of them working.
As we carefully looked at the evidence in front of us it didn't makes sense. We had seen stacks of rocks, we'd seen where they had washed the hillsides but we could find no evidence of the white quartz tertiary gravels. We returned to the truck after a fruitless day of propsecting and pulled the history of the area again. Two words caught our attention which in our zeal to get to the site we didn't pay attention to before: float gold.
In our enthusiasm to check out the area we completely missed what type of gold they were chasing, and yes it does make a difference. Float gold is gold eroded from a vein, but hasn't made its way to the creek yet. The gold was on the hillsides. The old sketches didn't depict a tertiary operation at all, they depicted washing the hillside to expose the eroded quartz. The gold was on the hillsides, not the creek.
Once you've found your prospective claims on the map, make a list of their locations and visit the BLM LR2000 website. Just go to Google and type in LR2000. Go to the Reports page and choose the report you're interested in under the section for mining claims. LR2000 is a little frienlier than it used to be a few years ago, but it's still a little confusing. Don't complain, in the old days we had to physically go to the office and spend hours sorting through giant books of location notices.
LR2000 will tell you whether there is an active claim in the area. However, the BLM records only locate the claim to within the quarter-quarter section or within 40 acres. Several claims could fit within this 40 acres depending on how they're located, so if there is a claim in the area don't write it off yet.
You can check land status by going to the BLM GLORecords site which provides the master plats for all federal land. Once you're confident the land is open for location you should visit the county recorder and pull the claim filing paperwork. The county recorder maintains records of all claims including the actual sketch of the claim. This will let give you a more precise location for the boundaries of other claims within the area of interest.
It used to be common to file what are known as gulch claims. These are long, narrow, irregular shaped claims which encompass only the width of the creek. They can run for a long ways so be very careful about looking for gulch claims in the area. BLM discourages the filing of gulch claims, but it's still legal.
If your claim is located in a surveyed area, and most are, then you are supposed to use PLSS. In California if you file a claim according to the PLSS then you need only put a discovery monument on your placer claim and you don't need corner monuments. With a lode claim you still need all four corners marked and the discovery point marked.
There are a lot of people who file paper claims. That is they never see the area before they claim it, they simply file the paperwork. This is a bad idea for a lot of reasons but we'll start with the simplest: it's illegal. The law requires you to make a valuable mineral discovery, you can't do that if you've never been to the claim. Secondly, it's real easy to over-file on someone else's claim. Always go to the claim, make your discovery and mark your boundaries. It is the custom of miners to mark their boundaries even if the law doesn't require it. This can be as simple as just putting a sign up at the upper and lower end of your river claim letting people know this is where your claim starts and stops.
If you get into a claim dispute don't call the sheriff. It's a civil matter and one in which you would have to file in civil court to resolve. It's far better to resolve the dispute than take it to court, and far cheaper.
Once everything checks out return to your county recorder and record your claim. They will give you a stamped, serialized copy which you'll make a copy of and send to BLM. Remember, the sequence is county first, BLM second. If the claim isn't recorded with the county it doesn't exist. In fact, prior to 1972, claims were only recorded with the county. So if you're looking for claim records prior to 1972 don't look at the BLM they won't have them.
Between your actual discovery, the day you find gold and put up your discovery monument, and the date you must file is 90 days. This means you can go to the field, make your discovery, erect your monument and you have a legal mining claim for 90 days. Within that 90 days you have to file with both the county recorder and the BLM. It is possible, and it happens, if you rush right in and file with BLM, someone else will see your filing and then go file with the recorder and BLM a location date prior to yours. The claim is now there's. For this reason some poeple will wait until the 90 days is almost up, then file with BLM.
You're ready to begin your gold mining. Your first check should be to determine whether you will be creating a significant surface disturbance. If you are then you've got two new friends: the US Forest Service adn the county which is currently the lead agency for the California Surface Mining and Recovery Act (SMARA). If your just dredging then its unlikely you'll need any further permits. Go out and recover some gold, but remember to file your annual paperwork, or someone else will file on your claim.