Fossils On Public Lands (12-8-08)

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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.

Recent Action

Geologic Mapping and Fossil Preservation Put on Hold Until 2009
An omnibus package with more than 150 bills related to public lands, water and resources was not considered during the lame duck session in November. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) vowed to bring the measure up as the first or second action of the new 111th Congress. The omnibus could be placed on the Senate calendar for a vote immediately and does not need to go through the committee process again.

The omnibus includes the National Cooperative Geologic Mapping Reauthorization, which would fund geologic mapping at the U.S. Geological Survey and the state geological surveys and the Fossil Preservation Act, which would protect fossils on public lands from poachers.

If the Senate is able to pass the omnibus, by collecting at least 60 votes to overcome a potential hold by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) than the House is expected to be able to pass the measure quickly. (11/08)

Previous Action

Omnibus Public Lands Bill Introduced
Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, introduced legislation (S. 3213) that bundles 96 public lands bills into one larger bill in order to facilitate the passage of these measures by the full Senate.  While all the bills included in the package are important their passage as stand alone measures is less certain, and Senator Bingaman hopes the inclusive strategy will follow the same successful path of a comprehensive natural resources bill enacted last month (S.2739).  S. 3213 includes two bills of interest to the geoscience community, the Paleontological Resource Preservation Act (S. 320) and reauthorization of the National Geologic Mapping Act of 1992 (S. 240).

The full text of the bill will be available soon at: (06/08)

Fossil Preservation Act Being Considered in House
On May 14, 2008, the House Natural Resources Committee adopted H.R. 554, the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act, introduced last year by James McGovern (D-MA). The purpose of the bill is to establish a comprehensive policy for the management of paleontological resources on federal lands, spurred by the rise of fossil theft and vandalism in recent years. Existing laws that address some paleontological resources are the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 and the Federal Cave Resources Protection Act of 1988. However, these laws only protect fossils when they are associated with archeological resources or when they are found in caves.

The bill would make it unlawful to remove paleontological resources from federal lands without a permit. The permit’s conditions are that the fossils collected remain the property of the United States and that they be made available for scientific research and public education. Casual collection of a reasonable amount of common invertebrate and plant fossils for non-commercial use would still be allowed.

H.R. 554’s companion bill in the Senate, S. 320, introduced by Senator Daniel Akaka (D-HI), has been passed out of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and placed on the legislative calendar for consideration by the full Senate. (05/08)

Paleontological Resources Preservation Act Introduced in Senate
In January 2007, Senator Daniel Akaka (-HI) and six cosponsors introduced S.320, the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act. The bill calls for the management and protection of paleontological resources on federal land using scientific principles and expertise and for the development of plans for inventorying, monitoring, and deriving the scientific and education use of such resources. The bill prohibits collection of paleontological resources with a permit with the exception of common invertebrate and plant paleontological resources in specified areas. S.320 has a companion bill in the House. Cosponsors for S.320 are Senators Jim Bunning (R-KY), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Daniel Inouye (D-HI), Pat Roberts (R-KS), and Ron Wyden (D-OR). (01/07)


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.

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, introduced on March 6 by Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI), 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 Senate then passed an amended version of S. 546, also known as 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.

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. Collection of vertebrate fossils would require permits. S.546 was passed by unanimous consent in the Senate in July of 2003. Notice was sent to the house and HR. 2416 was referred to House Subcommittee on Department Operations, Oversight, Nutrition and Forestry. No action was taken by the Subcommittee.

Additional information from the 109th Congress:

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

Contributed by David R. Millar 2004 AGI/AAPG Fall Semester Intern, Katie Ackerly, 2005 AGI/AAPG Spring Intern. Emily Lehr Wallace, AGI Government Affairs Program, and Erin Gleeson, 2007 AGI/AAPG Spring Intern.

Background section includes material from AGI's updates on Museums, Fossils and Public Lands and Fossils on Public Lands for the 108th Congress.

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

Last updated on June 30, 2008