Geotimes Logo POLITICAL SCENE August 1996

Public Lands, Public Fossils

This guest "Political Scene" was written by Larry Flynn from the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, one of the American Geological Institute's (AGI) member societies that has been very involved in the debate over fossil collecting on public lands. This debate is currently focused on legislation (H.R. 2943) introduced this February in the House of Representatives that would for the first time allow commercial fossil collectors to collect on public lands. No hearings have been scheduled for the bill, and its prospects for passage are at best slim. Because this issue is controversial within the geologic community, AGI has not taken a position on H.R. 2943 but supports all of its member societies in making their voices heard. For information and an update on this and other legislation, please visit the AGI home page on this server at

How best to manage the nation's fossil resources is not a new question, but it is one that is moving only slowly toward resolution. That it is doing so outside the domain of legislation is a positive signal. Progress on social issues can be served without more laws.
Efforts to develop policy on fossil resources have, however, been hindered by lack of consensus. When fossils occur on private lands, they can be used as the land owner sees fit. But when the land is public, the issues are more complex.
A number of laws govern the collection of fossils from federal lands. Generally, these laws are based on the premise that fossil resources are the property of the American people. Important fossils, often vertebrates, ought to be treated responsibly and housed in public institutions.
In February, Reps. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) and Joe Skeen (R-N.M.) introduced legislation that would change federal fossil policy. H.R. 2943, The Fossil Preservation Act of 1996, purports to promote public access to federal lands through uniform management across different agencies; it would greatly alter the existing permitting process. Importantly, the law would allow virtually unrestricted "reconnaissance collecting" (an undefined concept that involves harvesting surface fossils with hand tools) and issuing of permits to commercial collectors. Individuals (including commercial collectors) would own what they collect and would be able to transfer ownership by selling fossils to others.

Working toward consensus

Because past attempts to achieve consensus have been hurt by miscommunication, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP), the Paleontological Society, and the Dinosaur Society began frank discussions on fossil collecting in 1995. The groups hope to define what policies, if any, ought to be adopted by the chief professional paleontological societies in the United States.
SVP has also attempted to understand the needs of all of its members, including amateur paleontologists and commercial collectors. In 1995, SVP and the American Association of Paleontological Suppliers discussed hypothetical situations in which commercial and professional collecting could coexist.
This constructive process began before the introduction of H.R. 2943, but were these efforts independent of that bill? Paleontologists knew legislation was in the works and wanted to outline their views so that the bill could provide a useful revision of federal fossil policy. The threat of misguided lawmaking was the catalyst that brought these parties together. Ironically, the legislation introduced is so awkward, impractical, costly, and flawed in theory that it does not come close to meeting its stated goals.

Fatal flaws

The most obvious problems with H.R. 2943 are that it removes fossils found on federal lands from the public domain and eliminates a permitting process for most surface collecting. There are also other problems with the legislation -- some of which would have significant consequences.
The bill contains the notion that "scientifically unique fossils" are rare and that only these fossils should be protected. But who defines scientifically unique fossils? And does such a concept even conform to the way science studies fossils? Paleontologists today see far greater value in examining many more fossils in their natural state in the ground than lawmakers perhaps understand. By studying fossils in context, we've learned about nest-building oviraptors. Through such studies, we've brought "Jurassic Park" dinosaurs to life.
The proposed legislation would allow unrestricted collecting if the area disturbed is less than two square meters. The idea seems to be that smaller fossils are unimportant; in fact, the opposite assertion is more likely to be true, although that statement too would be a gross generalization.
If passed, H.R. 2943 would impose more work on land managers, but it makes no provision for increased staffing. The bill also creates an unwieldy National Fossil Council and gives it unrealistic deadlines for defining "scientifically unique" fossils, reviewing new finds, setting royalties, defining qualifications of collectors, and making other decisions, but allots no money for its operation. The only penalties imposed on violators are civil, so how much of a deterrent would this bill be?

Shortchanging science and the public

The introduction of H.R. 2943 has had one positive result. Like protective legislation concerning Native American materials, which forced museums and archaeologists to deal with issues of collecting and ownership, this bill has accelerated the dialogue among fossil hunters. But what would the effects of H.R. 2943 be if it became law?
The Fossil Preservation Act of 1996 is not protective; much of it is incompatible with Native American concerns about collecting on federal lands as well as the concerns of the scientific community. The impact on museum collections would be disastrous. Museum field parties and amateur collectors working with museums cannot compete with commercial teams, and museum acquisition budgets cannot match market prices. Fossils and the knowledge they offer about the past would be lost to science and the public.
Recognizing the controversy surrounding H.R. 2943, Rep. Johnson convened an informational meeting on May 14 in Washington, D.C. Although there was general support for stiffened penalties and required permits for reconnaissance collecting, little progress was or could be made in that forum. Fossils obviously trigger great passion among many people. But passion can get in the way of progress.
Fossils are indeed important -- ask any 5- year-old dinosaur fan. Resolving issues that affect their protection is an important goal. But H.R. 2943 will not help us meet this goal; outright grants of fossil ownership to private concerns is not a solution. Beneficial working relationships can be achieved and are best pursued outside the context of H.R. 2943. The bill's sponsors can claim victory in that they have managed to get people to talk to each other. Beyond that, the bill is useless.

Lawrence J. Flynn
Peabody Museum
Harvard University
Cambridge, Mass. 02138

Flynn is assistant director at Harvard University's Peabody Museum and is the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology representative to AGI's Government Affairs Advisory Committee.
Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program

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