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Legal Learning: Who owns the stones?

It amazes me that no one has asked that question before — who owns the stones on the shores of Lake Superior? A reader asked me that question, so I've asked everyone who should know, and I got a lot of conflicting answers.

Agates have been the official gemstone of the state of Minnesota since the Legislature passed a law saying so in 1969. Thomsonite pebbles are among the rarest in the world, and are only found on a short stretch of beach near Grand Marais. Thousands of rock hounds come to the North Shore every year and pick up these pebbles — are they guilty of theft? Minnesota law defines theft as "intentionally taking property belonging to another, with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the property," and if the property is worth between 1 cent and $500 it's a misdemeanor punishable by 90 days in jail.

A lot of Lake Superior shoreline is public land owned or managed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Here's what the DNR's Information Center told me: in state parks and recreational areas, nothing can be taken except "edible fruit or mushrooms for personal consumption." "You cannot remove rocks," they said, from "state trails, state water accesses, designated wetlands, and in scientific and natural areas (SNA)." Furthermore, "you need to get permission from the area forester to remove rocks within state forests." And "for wildlife management areas you need to contact the wildlife area manager. From along trout streams, DNR managed public beaches, and aquatic management areas you need to contact the area fisheries manager."

What about beaches owned by the city of Two Harbors, such as Agate Bay, Burlington Bay and Lighthouse Point? The DNR suggested that I contact City Hall to find out their rules about agate hunting.

So I spoke to Gail Olson at City Hall, and was told that as far as she knows, there are no rules. "It's probably illegal," she said, "but we can't maintain surveillance all the time." But if there's no ordinance prohibiting it, wouldn't it be legal? "I don't know, you'll have to ask the chief of police."

When I asked Chief Kevin Ruberg, he was equally uncertain. "In all my years as a policeman, nobody ever asked me that before," he said. He was unaware of any Two Harbors ordinance one way or the other.

Next I spoke to Keith Bartel, owner of the Agate Shop and Museum in Beaver Bay. Landowners, he believes, only own their Lake Superior property up to the vegetation line — the sandy shore and the water are public and are owned by everyone. Nobody, not even park rangers, can stop you from taking rocks from the beach, he says, just as thousands of sightseers have been doing for hundreds of years. If a ranger tries to stop you, according to Bartel, you should report it to his or her superior as harassment. If it's illegal, he says, "show me the law."

So no matter who is right, it seems sensible to limit your pebble collecting to a few stones — not a bucketful, not a truckload, not large boulders. If you pick up just a few, the authorities will probably look the other way and let you enjoy being a rock hound or a mineral collector on Lake Superior shores.

James H. Manahan is a Harvard Law School graduate. He handles family law, wills and probate in and around Lake County, and does mediation everywhere. He writes a regular column on legal issues for the News-Chronicle. The opinions expressed in this column are those of its author and are not to be attributed to his employer.