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Fossils and Public Lands (10-23-01)

Most Recent Action
The Paleontological Resources Preservation Act, H.R. 2974, was introduced by Rep. James P. McGovern (D-MA) to provide for the protection of paleontological resources on federal lands.  On October 2nd, the bill was introduced and referred to the House Committee on Resources.  Then, on October 11th, the Resources Committee referred it three of its subcommittees: the Subcommittee on National Parks, Recreation and Public Lands; the Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health; and the Subcommittee on Fisheries Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans.  In addition, the Resources Committee requested executive comment from the Department of the Interior, and the Department of Agriculture. (10/23/01)

The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology hosted a Capitol Hill luncheon briefing on June 8, 2001 to discuss fossil preservation on public lands. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) spoke at the briefing on legislation that he plans to introduce (see above) in response to a report by the Department of the Interior on what he described as a "patchwork" of regulations. He added that he would soon be introducing the bill as a conservationist, a parent, and someone fascinated by dinosaurs. The purpose of the bill is to give federal land managers the authority and resources to protect vertebrate fossils in order to ensure that they will not be removed from the public domain but will be preserved for public appreciation for all time. McGovern described the bill as promoting science and learning and did not think anyone could possibly oppose it. The bill will also call for stiffer penalties similar to those for archeological resources. (6/8/01)

Action in the 106th Congress
On May 15, 2001, then-Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt released a congressionally mandated report on federal fossil policy, available at The final report is quite simialr to a draft report released in October, maintaining the same basic principles outlined below. In a press release accompanying the report, Babbitt is quoted: "For the first time our public land management agencies have come forward together with recommendations to stop deterioration and loss of fossils and promote science and education....Too often, America's fossil treasure chests have been robbed, damaged or neglected because there was no consistent guidance or support for resource managers on the ground. More is needed to protect the best information we have about our deepest past." According to the release, Babbitt asks Congress in a letter accompanying the report "to consider the merits of action on a framework for fossils analogous to the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. Secretary Babbitt's letter stated, in addition, that the Congress should consider "the need for stiffer penalties for those who damage and steal certain fossils and more resources to enforce the law; the need to move forward with cost-effective new technologies for research and conservation; the need for regional studies and partnerships with amateurs and the academic community; and the need to do a better job at inventory and monitoring of fossil resources."

On October 25, 1999, the Department of the Interior (DOI) released a draft version of its congressionally mandated report, Assessment of Fossil Management on Federal and Indian Lands. Eight federal agencies -- the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Smithsonian Institution, and the U.S. Geological Survey -- helped develop the report. The report uses seven "basic principles" as the basis for recommendations regarding the development of future legislation governing the treatment of fossils on public lands. These basic principles are:

An AGI Agency Action Alert was sent out in late October 1999 to call the public comment period to the attention of the geoscience community.  The public comment period lasted until November 29, 1999.

The draft was an attempt to meet  requirements set down in last year's Senate-passed Interior appropriations bill.  As part of the developmental process, the department held a public meeting on June 21, 1999 at the U.S. Geological Survey's headquarters in Reston, Virginia to receive input on federal paleontology policies and a background document entitled Collection, Storage, Preservation and Scientific Study of Fossils from Federal and Indian Lands. For more information, see the May 21 Federal Register notice.

At the meeting, chaired by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's science advisor Dr. Bill Brown, representatives from most of the Interior bureaus as well as the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers heard testimony from 11 members of the public. The speakers represented a diversity of opinions with most of the comments focused on vertebrate fossils. Speakers represented scientific societies, museums, universites, commercial trade groups, and themselves as individuals. Organizations included:

For more on the meeting, see the summary at Written comments related to the meeting were accepted until July 15th. Comments submitted by AGI's Director of Government Affairs are appended below.

Report language (S. Rpt. 106-99) accompanying the Senate version of the Fiscal Year 2000 appropriations bill for the Department of the Interior (S. 1292) states: "The Committee understands the Department [of the Interior] will continue to work with the Forest Service, the Smithsonian Institution and other entities on the report requested by the Committee on the collection, storage and preservation of fossils located on Federal lands."

Action in the 105th Congress
An obscure provision in report language accompanying S. 2237, the Fiscal Year 1999 Interior and Related Agencies appropriations bill called 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 104th Congress, Johnson (then in the House) introduced H.R. 2943, which did not make it out of committee. His staff told AGI 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 Interior appropriations bill was ultimately rolled into a larger omnibus appropriations bill passed in the final days of the 105th Congress. The fossil language only appears in the original Senate report, thus the request comes from the U.S. Senate.

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.

Public Comment on Fossil Report by AGI Government Affairs Director David Applegate

July 15, 1999

I am writing to provide public comment on the Department of the Interior's compliance with the request in Senate Report 105-227 to report on the collection, storage, and preservation of fossils. The following comments are directed at the challenge set before the department from the perspective of someone whose job is to look after the interests of a diverse community of geoscientists. Although the views expressed in this letter derive from my experience as Director of Government Affairs at the American Geological Institute, they have not been formally endorsed by the Institute and are solely my own.

As the background paper Collection, Storage, Preservation and Scientific Study of Fossils from Federal and Indian Lands makes clear, federal agencies manage fossils under a dizzying array of statutes, regulations, and policy directives. Such a variety of statutes, many of which are specific to certain locations and fossil types, is not conducive to formulating clear policies easily understood by the public. At the same time, it seems unlikely that complete uniformity of policy across agencies is possible let alone desirable given the significantly different missions of federal land management agencies. All federal lands are managed in the public's interest, but the mandate for the National Park Service is substantially different from that of the Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forest Service. One would not expect their fossil collection policies to be uniform.

One would, however, expect their definitions to be uniform. The background document presents a wide variety of definitions used by different agencies, stating that the variation is "largely to conform with what each [agency] regulates and the mission of the agency." Such a statement explains the origin of the variation, but it does not present a case why those definitions must remain separate. The Department's report should recommend a concerted effort to develop standardized definitions of the terms "fossil" and "paleontological resource." Doing so would improve the public's ability to decipher agency policies and create a firm foundation for all agency policy.

At the public meeting on June 21st, most of the comments focused on the collection aspect of fossil management and particularly on collection of vertebrate fossils. The meeting was a reminder of how contentious this issue continues to be. Several of AGI's member societies have a strong interest in this aspect of federal policy but have yet to agree on a single solution. I would like to thank the Department for providing an opportunity for interested societies like the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology to provide input at your public meeting. I hope that our other member societies with a particular expertise in this area, such as the Paleontological Society and the Paleontological Research Institution, will also provide input.

Given the contentiousness of the collection issue, AGI has not taken a position on earlier legislation and does not have current plans to do so. AGI does have a strong interest in storing and preserving fossils collected on public lands. Tight fiscal times have eroded the support available for storage and preservation of fossil collections at federal agencies. In that respect, the federal situation is reflective of a challenge facing the nation as a whole. The paleontology community is confronted with a growing number of orphaned and threatened collections, particularly of invertebrate fossils. Universities and colleges that no longer have paleontologists on their faculty are seeking to dispose of their collections. Many individual personal collections, which together may well dwarf all others in size, are also in jeopardy. Without preservation, these treasures and data will be irrecoverably lost.

The American Geological Institute developed its National Geoscience Data Repository System (NGDRS) project in order to preserve billions of dollars worth of geoscience data from destruction as petroleum and mining companies downsize their operations and increasingly move away from domestic operations into the international arena. The data collected by those companies represents a substantial scientific investment with applications to geologic hazards research, environmental remediation, fundamental research into the nature of sedimentary basins, groundwater flow paths, additional resource exploration, and numerous other purposes. Data types include rock core, digital seismic reflection tapes, maps, well logs, and paleontological collections. Preservation alone is not adequate if these data are to be useful -- it must be accompanied by improved access. The NGDRS effort also includes clearinghouse and metadata catalog functions to increase the accessibility of data in the public domain. The web-based metadata catalog links information about data collections around the country, allowing a user to ascertain what data are available and how to obtain them. Although the NGDRS project as a whole focuses on transferring private-sector data into the public domain, the NGDRS metadata catalog is designed to include public data from state geological surveys, universities, and federal agencies.

At several workshops on data preservation held by AGI, paleontological societies have come forward with a plea to incorporate their need for a national effort to preserve paleontological collections into the NGDRS effort, and ongoing discussions are directed toward that goal. Recognizing that the Department's current effort is directed solely at fossils collected on public lands, a supportive recommendation in the report to value the storage and preservation of federal paleontological collections would send a strong message for other federal agencies -- such as the National Science Foundation -- and non-federal entities to value these collections as well.

Once again, I would like to commend the Department for its efforts to incorporate public input into the development of this report. Fossil collection on public land will remain a contentious issue so long as some fossils retain the value of fine art, a situation that is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. The Department should seize this opportunity to develop a uniform set of definitions to underpin existing agency policies as a starting point for simplifying the current regulatory system. The report should also emphasize the importance of maintaining adequate funding for storage and preservation of fossil collections and ensuring future public access to these important public domain resources.
cc:  Bill Brown, Science Advisor to the Secretary of the Interior
Marcus Milling, AGI Executive Director

Contributed by David Applegate, John Dragonetti,  AGI/AAPG Intern Alison Alcott, and AGI/AAPG Fall 2001 Intern Catherine Macris.

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

Last Updated October 23, 2001

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