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Summary of Hearings on Fossils (6-27-03)

  • June 10, 2003: US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks Hearing on S. 546.
  • June 19, 2003: US House Resource Subcommittees on Fisheries and Forests Joint Hearing on H.R. 2416

House Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans and Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health
Joint Hearing on H.R. 2416, a Bill to Provide for the Protection of Paleontological Resources on Federal Lands

June 19, 2003

Rep. James McGovern (D-MA)
Robert Lamb, U.S. Department of the Interior
Catherine A. Forster, State University of New York, Society of Vertebrate Paleontology
Ted J.Vlamis, Amateur Paleontologist

The House Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans and Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health met jointly on June 19, 2003, to hold a hearing on H.R. 2416 that addresses the protection of paleontological resources on federal lands. The hearing was chaired by Rep. Scott McInnis (R-CO). The bill was introduced by Rep. James McGovern (DMA), who also testified at this hearing. Additional witnesses represented the administration and both professional and amateur paleontologists. All witnesses supported H.R. 2416 and especially welcomed the stronger proposed penalties for fossil theft and vandalism.

In his statement, McGovern testified that his bill includes "stiff penalties" for crimes of theft and vandalism of fossils, but is aimed only at those seeking to profit illegally from fossil collection. He wrote no new regulations for amateur paleontologists or for "casual collectors," visitors to the public lands who are seeking common invertebrate and plant fossils. The bill also would not affect private collections already in existence or excavations on private lands. McGovern stipulates in his bill that any protected fossils must be curated at a museum or "suitable depository," part of the standardized permitting proposals for excavation and ownership. McGovern expressed that his interest in this issue stems from his 5 year-old son's love of dinosaurs and fascination with fossils.

Catherine Forster addressed the committee on behalf of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in support of the bill, and also made reference to its support by the American Association of Museums. Forster voiced concerns that the "heightened public interest" in the field of paleontology has also led to the "increased commercialization of fossils" through black market trade. She also explained that the rocks that fossils are found in are also invaluable sources of contextual data about the environment that the fossilized animals lived in. Forster supports the stiffer penalties and more regulated permitting as a deterrent to theft and vandalism of paleontological resources on public lands. Forster's sentiments were later echoed and echoed by Ted J. Vlamis from the viewpoint of an amateur paleontologist.

Rep. Tom Udall (D-NM) urged Rep. McGovern to add clarifying language regarding the protection of Native American Sacred Sites, voicing concern that the bill might infringe on Native Americans' rights to harvest rocks used in religious ceremonies if they contain fossils. Rep. Steve Pearce (R-NM) asked Forster what stops the scientific community from selling fossils on the black market, to which she replied by explaining the science community's standard of ethics regarding such actions and the pains that museums and depositories go through to properly catalogue and track collected fossils and those loaned out for research.

Witnesses' testimonies and committee members' opening statements are available at the committee website.


US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
Subcommittee on National Parks
Miscellaneous Parks Bills
June 10, 2003


Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, (D-DC)
D. Thomas Ross, Assistant Director for Recreation and Conservation, National Park Service, Department of the Interior
Christopher Kearney, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management and Budget, Department of the Interior
Elizabeth Estill, Deputy Chief for Programs, Legislation and Communication, Forest Service, US Department of Agriculture

On June 10, 2003, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks held a hearing on several National Park bills. The witnesses' written testimonies are available online at the committee's website. Of particular interest to geoscientists, the senators present heard testimony on S. 546, the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act. A similar bill, S. 2727, passed the Energy and Natural Resource Committee in the 107th Congress. In his opening statement, Senator Daniel K. Akaka (D-HI), who introduced the bill in March 2003, said that the bill's purpose is to set a consistent federal policy to protect fossil resources at the same time allowing casual collecting for a wide variety of plant and common invertebrate fossils. The bill also will "develop a plan for inventorying, monitoring, and deriving the scientific and educational use of such resources" and "will establish a program to increase public awareness about the significance of paleontological resources." Akaka said he has received letters supporting the bill from many organizations including the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Christopher Kearney testified that S. 546 would codify the collection permitting process to ensure that fossils are retained as public property and organized in a repository for scientific use. He continued by saying that the casual collecting permit exemption was an important provision because it provides an opportunity for the public's enjoyment of federal lands and educational goals. He also said that the bill would provide criminal penalties to protect paleontological resources against theft and vandalism. Kearney said that the Department of the Interior (DOI) supports the bill's purpose but recommends specific amendments on the bill's language, judicial review process, and fee assessment and collection.

Elizabeth Estill testified that National Forest Service is in great need for paleontological resource management and protection. S. 546 would provide a consistent statutory framework that would clarify and define laws and penalties. She continued by saying that under current policy the management and penalty enforcement of paleontological resources are defined in a complex mixture of laws and regulations. Estill said that the Department of Agriculture (USDA) supports the bill's purpose but it has concern regarding language defining award amounts and payments. Estill said that the USDA recommends that references to any specific dollar amount be removed. Estill said that the USDA supports the DOI amendments and if the reward section of the bill was clarified, the USDA would support the bill.


Sources: Hearing testimony.

Contributed by Deric R. Learman and Emily Scott, Summer 2003 AGI/AIPG Interns.

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

Last updated on June 27, 2003

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