American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program


Update on H.R. 2943: The Fossil Preservation Act of 1996


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.

Background

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.

The sponsors of H.R. 2943 can be reached by writing or calling:

The Honorable Tim Johnson
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington DC 20515
(202) 225-2801
Note: In November, Johnson defeated Sen. Larry Pressler (R-SD) and will become a senator in January, 1997

The Honorable Joe Skeen
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington DC 20515
(202) 225-2365

(Contributed by John Dragonetti, AGI Government Affairs)


Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program at govt@agiweb.org.

Last updated December 5, 1996 (technical correction 3-11-97)

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