Interior Releases Fossil Report (10/00)
The following column by GAP Senior Advisor John Dragonetti is reprinted
from the October 2000 issue of The Professional Geologist, a publication
of the American Institute of Professional
Geologists . It is reprinted with permission.
In the fiscal year 1999 Department of the Interior and Related Agencies
Appropriations Act, the U.S. Senate ordered the Secretary of the Interior
to prepare a report assessing the need for a unified federal policy for
the collection, storage and preservation of fossils collected on public
lands. Further, the Senate directed several agencies to assist the
Secretary in the preparation of this report. These consulting agencies
included the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Forest Service (FS),
the National Park Service (NPS), the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the
Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), and the
Smithsonian Institution (SI). The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) was added
to the study group because of their special expertise in paleontology.
In addition, South Dakota’s Democratic Senators Tom Daschle and Tim Johnson
, both of whom have been involved in the issue of fossils on federal lands
for several years, sent a letter to the Secretary asking for recommendations
on how to improve the preservation and study of fossils collected on those
lands. (See TPG September, 1999, page 10, “The Quest for a Uniform Policy
on Fossil Collecting.)
The federal government requested public comments in a Federal Register
notice dated May 21, 1999, and during the public meeting held on June 21,
1999, followed by an open comment period. All submitted comments were evaluated
by the study agencies. A report entitled “Assessment of Fossil Management
on Federal and Indian Lands” was released in May 2000. Federal lands identified
in the report were those lands managed by the BLM, BOR, FS, FWS, and the
NPS. There were no recommendations concerning Native American lands, since
those lands are held in trust to be managed by Native American tribes or
individual landowners. Reference was made to the BIA’s lack of authority
to manage paleontological resources on these lands, but served solely to
assure that any transactions benefited the landowner. Another factor of
significance to Native American interests was the requirement that federal
agencies managing public lands must comply with the President’s May
24, 1996 Executive Order on Sacred Sites that protects sacred sites and
allows Native Americans access to these sites for ceremonial uses.
Report Principles and Recommendations
The report indicates that fossils have scientific, educational, and
commercial value; that protection and management of fossil resources would
be greatly enhanced if future congressional and administrative actions
were governed by the following seven principles and recommendations:
Principle 1: Fossils on federal lands are a part of America’s heritage.
Recommendation: Future actions should reaffirm the current use of federal
fossils for their scientific, educational and, where appropriate, recreational
Principle 2: Most vertebrate fossils are rare. Recommendation: Future
actions should reaffirm the restriction of vertebrate fossil collection
to qualified personnel, with the fossils remaining in federal ownership
Principle 3: Some invertebrate and plant fossils are rare. Recommendation:
Future actions should reaffirm mission-specific agency approaches to the
management of plant and invertebrate fossils.
Principle 4: Penalties for fossil theft should be strengthened.
Recommendation: Future actions should penalize the theft of fossils from
federal lands in a way that maximizes the effectiveness of prosecutions
and deters future thefts. Penalties should take into account, among other
factors, the value of fossils themselves, as well as any damage resulting
from their illegal collection. Future program strategies should emphasize
education of federal managers, prosecutors, law enforcement personnel and
the judiciary regarding the value of fossils and the techniques for the
appropriate protection of fossil resources.
Principle 5: Effective stewardship requires accurate information.
Recommendation: Future actions should acknowledge the need for gathering
and analyzing information about where fossils occur, in particular the
critical role of inventory in the effective management of fossil resources.
Increased emphasis on fossil inventory should take into consideration,
where possible, regional approaches across agency lines, using modern technology
such as GIS. Such work should also address specific issues, such as the
impact of erosion on the loss of resources.
Principle 6: Federal fossil collections should be preserved and
available for research and public education. Recommendation: Future actions
should affirm the importance of curating scientifically valuable fossils
as federal property, often in partnership with non-federal institutions.
Future program approaches should emphasize the use of modern technology
to improve curation and access, as well as the sharing of information between
and among government agencies and other institutions.
Principle 7: Federal fossil management should emphasize opportunities
for public involvement. Recommendation: Future actions should include an
emphasis on public education and participation in the stewardship of fossil
resources. Future program approaches should emphasize the use of technology
to increase public education and awareness of the importance and benefit
of fossil resources.
Despite the stated aim of the report to develop a unified federal policy,
the differing mandates, rules and regulations governing the land management
agencies for collecting fossils and obtaining scientific collecting permits
have resulted in different practices and requirements among the agencies.
Therefore, anyone interested in fossil collecting on federal lands should
determine what agency has jurisdiction over the land, and communicate directly
with the land manager for the particular parcel for which access is sought.
This column is a bimonthly feature written by John Dragonetti, CPG-02779,
who is Senior Advisor to the American Geological Institute's Government
This article is reprinted with permission from The Professional Geologist,
published by the American Institute of Professional Geologists. AGI gratefully
acknowledges that permission.
Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.
Contributed by John Dragonetti, AGI Government Affairs.
Posted December 4, 2000