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Summary of Public Forum on Federal Palaeontology Policy (6-21-99)

The Department of the Interior held a public forum at the U.S. Geological Survey office in Reston, Virginia, on June 21, 1999.  Eleven speakers addressed a panel of representatives from federal departments dealing with fossils.  The panel plans to present a final copy of their report to Congress by February 1, 2000.

William Brown, Science Advisor to the Secretary of the Interior, chair
Ed Friedman, Bureau of Reclamation
Lary Gadt, U.S. Forest Service
Lindsay McClelland, National Park Service
Marily Nickels, Bureau of Land Management
Ross Simons, Smithsonian Institution
Donald Sutherland, Bureau of Indian Affairs
Bruce Wardlaw, U.S. Geological Survey

David Parris, New Jersey State Museum
George Loud, Amateur, American Lands Access Association
Marion Zenker, Black Hills Institute
Sally Shelton, Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections
Ted Vlamis, Amateur, Save America's Fossils for Everyone
Patrick Leiggi, Museum of the Rockies, Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology
Cathleen May, Geological Society of America
Jan Campbell, Save America's Fossils for Everyone
J. E. Martin, South Dakota School of Mines
Roberta Faul-Zeitler, Association of Systematic Collections
Dave Fordyce, Amateur

David Parris, curator of natural history at the New Jersey State Museum told the panel that he supports amateur fossil collectors, but said leaving fossils exposed in the field is not destructive, while inexpert removal of fossils is destructive.

George Loud, an amateur fossil collector and member of the American Lands Access Association board of directors told the panel he represented 50,000 rock hounds across the nation.  In contrast to Parris, Loud said fossils exposed in the field "aren't stable, they're deteriorating."  He related his personal experiences collecting fossils including picking up whale bones and shark teeth on state property.  He pointed out that not all vertebrate fossils are valuable and argued they should not all be protected.  "Nothing I have seen [in years of collecting fossils] is of such value that it deserves protection," he said.   Loud added that "the state of Virginia is more progressive than the federal government" because it allows collection of fossils on its lands.

Marion Zenker of the Black Hills Institute spoke as legislative coordinator for the American Lands Access Association and on behalf of the American Association of PalaeontologicPalaeontologyal Suppliers.  She called fossils "an abundantly renewable resource."  She said they are spread across the nation's 1/2 billion acres of public land.  Zenker argued that fossils are numerous, weather easily and are not rare.  She said amateurs and private for-profit collectors make an "immense and enormous contribution" to science through their work.  She told the panel that a 1987 National Research Council report stated that the "'science of palaeontology is best served by unimpeded access in the field.'"  Zenker called for federal policy that "recognizes the tremendous abundance" of fossils as well as the "immense contribution of amateur and professional collectors."

Noting differences of opinion between the two speakers on the danger of fossil weathering, panel chair William Brown asked Zenker and Parris to each provide three to five examples demonstrating the pros and cons of leaving fossils exposed in the field until they can be removed by experts.

Sally Shelton of the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections spoke of the importance of preserving paleontological collections and particularly associated specimen data without which fossils lose their scientific value.

Ted Vlamis, an amateur fossil collector and president of Save America's Fossils for Everyone (SAFE), stated that fossils are a non-renewable source.  He said their value lies not in their consumption, as with oil or coal, but in the information they convey.  Vlamis said the context fossils are located within is very important and fossils removed by non-experts often lose their value because their context is not well documented.  Vlamis said that clearer regulations would benefit all those involved, and he called for stronger penalties for theft.  He said vertebrate fossils should be held in the public trust.

Patrick Leiggi of the Museum of the Rockies and Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology said Americans should not have to buy back fossils that are collected on public lands.  He called on the federal government to help protect the nation's natural heritage and called public lands a place where the federal government can and should protect fossils.  Leiggi also said fossils are a rare and non-renewable resource that the American people hold in common.

Cathleen May of the Geological Society of America spoke before the panel as a private citizen.  She asked the panel to recognize that fossils can not be treated like renewable resources.  She called on the federal government to create a uniform collection policy and also for nation wide data and information management.

Jan Campbell, Washington representative of SAFE, said vertebrate fossils must be protected for everyone.  She added that fossils represent less than one percent of the organisms actually alive at one time.  Like earlier witnesses, she said context is the key to learning from fossils.

J. E. Martin, curator of palaeontology for the South Dakota School of Mines' Museum, said all groups involved want to be better informed.  He said modern computer technology makes it possible to give immediate access  to data.  He called for creation of a palaeontology information center taking advantage of new technology.

Roberta Faul-Zeitler of the Association of Systematic Collections said the draft of the Interior Department's report to congress on the collection, storage, preservation and scientific study of fossils from federal and Indian lands is a "good beginning."  She urged development of a stronger partnership between agencies and organizations involved with fossil issues.  She said fossils are a "priceless heritage, not a commodity or commercial product."  Faul-Zeitler cautioned that a full inventory, proposed by some, would be very costly.  She said protection of such resources is not rigorous and few people are prosecuted every year.  She also argued that no distinction is made between micro and macro fossils.  Faul-Zeitler called for protection similar to that of the Endangered Species Act for some fossils.

Dave Fordyce, an amateur collector, said fossils are already "put away" from the public in museum holdings.  He would like to see an assessment of repository space.  Like Faul-Zeitler, Fordyce said a distinction needs to be made "between a sharks tooth and a dinosaur."

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Contributed by AGI/AIPG Geoscience Policy Intern Althea Cawley-Murphree

Last updated July 6, 1999

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