If passed, H.R. 2943 would impose more work on land managers, but it makes no provision for increased staffing. The bill also creates an unwieldy National Fossil Council and gives it unrealistic deadlines for defining "scientifically unique" fossils, reviewing new finds, setting royalties, defining qualifications of collectors, and making other decisions, but allots no money for its operation. The only penalties imposed on violators are civil, so how much of a deterrent would this bill be?
Shortchanging science and the public
The introduction of H.R. 2943 has had one positive result. Like protective legislation concerning Native American materials, which forced museums and archaeologists to deal with issues of collecting and ownership, this bill has accelerated the dialogue among fossil hunters. But what would the effects of H.R. 2943 be if it became law?
The Fossil Preservation Act of 1996 is not protective; much of it is incompatible with Native American concerns about collecting on federal lands as well as the concerns of the scientific community. The impact on museum collections would be disastrous. Museum field parties and amateur collectors working with museums cannot compete with commercial teams, and museum acquisition budgets cannot match market prices. Fossils and the knowledge they offer about the past would be lost to science and the public.
Recognizing the controversy surrounding H.R. 2943, Rep. Johnson convened an informational meeting on May 14 in Washington, D.C. Although there was general support for stiffened penalties and required permits for reconnaissance collecting, little progress was or could be made in that forum. Fossils obviously trigger great passion among many people. But passion can get in the way of progress.
Fossils are indeed important -- ask any 5- year-old dinosaur fan. Resolving issues that affect their protection is an important goal. But H.R. 2943 will not help us meet this goal; outright grants of fossil ownership to private concerns is not a solution. Beneficial working relationships can be achieved and are best pursued outside the context of H.R. 2943. The bill's sponsors can claim victory in that they have managed to get people to talk to each other. Beyond that, the bill is useless.
Lawrence J. Flynn
Cambridge, Mass. 02138
Flynn is assistant director at Harvard University's Peabody Museum and is the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology representative to AGI's Government Affairs Advisory Committee.
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