American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program

Fossils and Public Lands Update (10-6-98)

An obscure provision in report language accompanying S. 2237, the Interior and Related Agencies appropriations bill calls on the Secretary of the Interior to issue a report on "assessing the need for a unified Federal policy on the collection, storage, and preservation of...fossils." The language was inserted by Interior Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Slade Gorton (R-WA), at the request of Senators Tom Daschle (D-SD) and Tim Johnson (D-SD). In the last Congress, Johnson (then in the House) introduced H.R. 2943, which did not make it out of committee. His staff indicate that the purpose of the current provision is to push the Department of the Interior to address the need for a national policy for fossils on public lands.

The provision appears in explanatory language for the "Departmental Management, Salaries and Expenses" account, not one that AGI normally keep close tabs on, I must admit. It is appended below. You can also read it in context by going to S. 2237 on the Library of Congress web site or going to that site's home page -- -- and searching for Senate Report 105-227.

The Senate Appropriations Committee has approved S. 2237, but the full Senate has not acted on it yet. Such action is already past due as the bill covers Fiscal Year 1999, which began on October 1st. The bill is currently under a veto threat from President Clinton over a number of environmental riders on logging and other matters. The House version of this bill (H.R. 4193, House Report 105-609) does not contain any provisions on fossils.

The provision:

"Under current public laws, including the Federal Land Management Policy Act of 1976, Federal land management agencies are given the authority and the mandate to protect public resources, including those of scientific value. These resources include fossilized paleontological specimens, which provide valuable clues to the Earth's history. The Committee is aware that no unified Federal policy exists regarding the treatment of these fossils by the affected Federal agencies, and is concerned that the lack of appropriate standards may lead to the deterioration or loss of these fossils and the permanent loss of a valuable scientific resource.

"Therefore, the Secretary of the Interior, in consultation with appropriate scientific, educational and commercial entities, should develop a report assessing the need for a unified Federal policy on the collection, storage, and preservation of these fossils. Agencies to be consulted in the development of this policy should include, but not be limited to, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Forest Service, and the Smithsonian Institution. The Committee encourages the Secretary to assess the need for standards that would maximize the availability of fossils for scientific study. The Committee expects the Secretary to submit the report to Congress for review no later than February 1, 1999. In addition, the report should evaluate the effectiveness of current methods for storing and preserving fossils collected from public lands."

Background (Update from 104th Congress, Revised 12/96)

On February 1, 1996 Rep. Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Rep. Joe Skeen (R-NM) introduced H.R. 2943, the latest version of legislation designed to govern fossil collection on public lands. Both representatives are actively soliciting comments from all those concerned about the bill (see below for contact information). Both Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) and Sen. Herb Kohl (D-WI) considered introducing companion legislation in the Senate, and Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID) has also expressed an interest in introducing fossil legislation but none of them did. The bill did not receive a hearing by the House Committee on Resources, to which it was referred, and the 104th Congress closed without further action on HR 2943. Although the bill did not pass this Congress, it laid the groundwork for action in the 105th Congress when it convenes in January, 1997. If the legislation is to be considered by the next Congress, however, there will have to be considerable negotiation between the interested parties and significant amendment to the legislation in view of the dramatically divergent opinions held by a variety of factions.

H.R. 2943, known as the Fossil Preservation Act of 1996, applies to lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Corps of Engineers. All other federal and Indian lands are exempt. Two types of collecting are identified. Reconnaissance collecting in which less than two square meters of surface are disturbed, and quarrying which includes all other forms of collecting. A permit is required for all quarrying, while permits for reconnaissance collecting are only required under special conditions.

The issue of fossil collecting on public lands continues to be a contentious subject among paleontologists, federal land managers, professional societies, amateur fossil collectors, commercial fossil interests, and academia. In an effort to reconcile the differences among these many interest groups, staff from the offices of House sponsors Johnson and Skeen organized a meeting on May 10, 1996 to review the latest version of the proposal designed to govern fossil collection on public lands. Attending the meeting were representatives of the House Committee on Resources, Senator Tom Daschle's office, the Paleontological Society (PS), the American Lands Access Association (ALAA), the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP), the Association of Systematics Collections (ASC), the American Association of Paleontological Suppliers (AAPS), the Smithsonian Institution, The Dinosaur Society, the U.S. Geological Survey USGS), the U.S. Bureau of Land Management BLM), the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), the U.S. Park Service (USPS), and the American Geological Institute (AGI).

Under current USFS and BLM regulations, recreational and scientific collection of invertebrate fossils and petrified wood does not require a permit, but collection of vertebrate fossils is restricted. The proposed legislation would expand the right of amateur collectors to collect fossils on certain public lands and for the first time extend that right to commercial collectors. Opponents of the legislation contend that commercial collectors are only interested in the most valuable specimens, and in their removal, would damage less economically valuable but scientifically important fossils. Others claim that unskilled collectors could damage valuable fossils or remove them thereby making fossils unavailable for scientific investigation. Amateur and commercial collectors point out that many valuable fossil assemblages have been discovered by members of their communities. In addition to these typical arguments, the meeting attendees debated four specific issues. 1) That the term unique may be unsuitable, for it is too restrictive, and should be replaced by the term "important;" 2) whether or not civil penalties for violators were sufficient, or should criminal penalties be imposed; 3) whether the chair of the proposed National Fossil Council should reside within the U.S. Geological Survey or with the National Museum of Natural History; and 4) whether the legislation should be divided into two sections - one to govern the collection of invertebrate fossils and the second to control the removal of vertebrate fossils? All attendees thoroughly agreed that some form of legislation is necessary for uniformity within the federal establishment, and to allow fuller access to public lands, but there remains significant disagreement concerning the details.

The issue of fossils on public lands has been hotly debated in South Dakota, and the state legislature recently voted (35-0 in the state house and 62-3 in the state senate) on their own fossil legislation, which SVP President David Krause calls "diametrically opposed" to H.R. 2943.

On June 10, 1996 a symposium to discuss land access issues in paleontology was convened at the Smithsonian Institution Ripley Center in conjunction with the annual meeting of the North American Paleontological Council. Presentations by representatives of the USGS, the Smithsonian, ALAA, AAPS, SVP, USFS, BLM, and the National Academy of Sciences were offered. Several issues related to H.R. 2943 were discussed. The general opinion of those in attendance was that the legislation in its present form was too controversial to be enacted during the present session.

(Contributed by David Applegate and John Dragonetti, AGI Government Affairs)

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Last updated October 6, 1998

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