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Fossils and Public Lands (7-23-03)

The protection and preservation of fossils on public lands remains a contentious subject as paleontological societies have been working with both Congress and federal agencies, such as the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and the Forest Service, to develop comprehensive legislation to prevent damage and the unauthorized removal of fossils from public lands. Such efforts also must take into account issues such as maintaining appropriate accessibility to amateur fossil collectors and commercial fossil interests must also be considered.

Most Recent Action

The Senate passed an amended version of S. 546, the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act, by unanimous consent on July 17, 2003. It was subsequently referred to the House Committees on Resources and Agriculture, each of which has jurisdiction over some agencies covered by the bill.

On June 25, 2003, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee passed S. 546 without controversy after holding a hearing on June 10th. The committee issued S. Rpt. 108-93 to accompany the bill on July 11, 2003. The bill was introduced on March 6 by Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI), and sets forth a national policy . The legislation recognizes that fossils are an irreplaceable part of America's heritage and seeks to establish a comprehensive national policy on the permitting, management, and usage of paleontological resources found on federal lands.

The House Resources Subcommittees on Fisheries and Forests held a joint hearing on June 19th regarding Rep. James McGovern’s (D-MA) similar bill (H.R. 2416). Both H.R. 2416 and S. 546 increase criminal penalties for theft or vandalism of paleontological resources on federal lands in an effort to curb the sale of stolen fossils on the black market. Both bills also exempt casual collectors from permitting requirements, as long as their collecting is restricted to invertebrate and plant fossils, but the collection of vertebrate fossils will require permits.


In response to a congressional request, eight federal agencies released the report Fossils on Federal and Indian Lands in May 2000. The report acknowledged the importance of fossils to the heritage of the United States, and that they are a rare resource containing scientific, educational, commercial, and recreational values. Further, the myriad of collection requirements for fossils across federal land management agencies was due to the varying legal mandates and missions of each agency. In order to remedy the situation and keep scientifically important specimens in the public trust, the report recommended a framework of fossil management analogous to the Archeological Resources Protection Act of 1979. Any future action should increase penalties for fossil theft from federal lands with consideration given to the value of fossils and any damage caused to them, restrict collection of vertebrate fossil to qualified personnel, recognize the rarity of some invertebrate and plant fossils, and emphasize the education of federal managers, prosecutors, and law enforcement personnel on the value of fossils.

Additional information from the 107th Congress:

Sources: Fossils on Federal and Indian Lands amd THOMAS website.

Contributed by Charna Meth, 2003 Spring Semester Intern, and David Applegate.
Background section includes material from AGI's updates on Museums, Fossils and Public Lands and Fossils on Public Lands for the 107th Congress.

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

Last updated on July 23, 2003

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