Government Affairs Report: The Quest for a Uniform Federal Policy on Fossil Collecting (9/99)

The following column by GAP Senior Advisor John Dragonetti is reprinted from the September 1999 issue of The Professional Geologist, a publication of the American Institute of Professional Geologists . It is reprinted with permission.

Fossil collection on public lands has been a contentious subject among federal land managers, paleontologists, professional societies, commercial fossil interests, and amateur fossil collectors for several years. During the 104th Congress in 1996, Representatives Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Joe Skeen (R-NM) introduced H.R. 2943, intended to govern fossil collecting on public lands. Subsequent meetings with the various interested parties revealed dramatically divergent views. Each of the parties maintained their opinions throughout the negotiations creating a virtual stalemate. The bill was referred to the House Committee on Resources, but because of the lack of agreement among stakeholders over how this issue should be handled, the committee took no further action before the end of the session.

Despite the failure of H.R. 2943 to make much headway, significant interest in the issue continued into the 105th Congress. The result was a provision accompanying the Senate version of last year's Department of the Interior appropriations bill that the "Secretary of the Interior, in consultation with appropriate scientific, educational and commercial entities, should develop a report assessing the need for a unified Federal policy on the collection, storage, and preservation of ... fossils." In order to address the requirements of the legislation, a public meeting was held in June at the U.S. Geological Survey's (USGS) national headquarters in Reston, Virginia.

The meeting was presided over by the Interior Secretary's science advisor and a panel of representatives of the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Smithsonian Institution, and the USGS. The panel heard testimony from eleven speakers representing scientific societies, museums, universities, commercial trade groups, and individual collectors. Although not represented  on the panel, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Army Corps of Engineers were identified as interested parties.

In order to meet the conditions set down in Senate Report 105-227 accompanying the Fiscal Year 1999 Interior and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, the federal panel intends to submit a final report to Congress by February 1, 2000. The report will not only assess the need for a unified federal policy, but also will assess the need for standards to "maximize the availability of fossils for scientific study," and "evaluate the effectiveness of current methods for storing and preserving fossils collected on public lands," all tasks set by the Senate.

What is a Fossil?
The congressional request for a unified federal policy reflects frustration over the diverse regulations currently in place for different agencies. Collection and permit requirements differ not only among the agencies for invertebrates, vertebrates, petrified wood, and fossil plants. Not only do the regulations differ, but the terms "fossil" and "paleontological  resource" are defined differently by different agencies.  Only the USGS and the Smithsonian, neither of which manage lands, have inclusive definitions of these terms. They define fossils as the remains, traces, or imprints of once-living organisms preserved in the earth's crust. A preliminary report developed by the panel outlines current policies and definitions. It is available by writing to Sara Pena, Bureau of Land Management, 1849 C Street NW, Washington, DC 20240.

Federal Policy Goals
The principal stated goal of federal policy is to preserve fossils from public lands for their scientific and educational values and to assure their benefit to the general public. Another key objective is to insure the proper storage and care of fossils, primarily in a museum setting. A unified federal policy must also seek to avoid damage to fossils through inexpert collection, and the loss of information on location, rock type and other pertinent data.

In addition to the permitting processes and conditions, all of the land management agencies also have requirements concerning threatened or endangered species, cultural sites, and wildlife habitats that can affect fossil collecting efforts. The agencies must comply with a variety of laws including the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Wilderness Act, the Federal Cave Resources Protection Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, the Archeological Resources Protection Act, and Presidential Executive Order 13007 of May 1996 governing Indian sacred sites.

Although the USGS and the Smithsonian do not manage lands, both have unique roles for fossil collection and preservation. The former's role derives from its paleontological expertise, and the latter's through the mandate of the USGS Organic Act of 1879, which states that all collections of rock, minerals, soils, fossils, and objects of natural history, archaeology and ethnology made by the USGS or other governmental agencies, when no longer needed for study shall be deposited in the National Museum. Because Indian lands are not public lands, decisions on fossil collecting are within the purview of the tribe or individual Indian landowner. The Bureau of Indian Affairs' role, as a trustee, is simply to assure the Indian landowner benefits from the transaction, but has no other authority to manage paleontological resources.

Meeting Testimony
Most of the speakers at the June meeting focussed their testimony on vertebrate fossils. There was general agreement in principle that uniformity was desirable for fossil collecting policy on federal lands, but beyond that it was clear that existing differences have not abated.

Representatives of the American Lands Access Association stated that fossils are an abundantly renewable resource, not rare, and not in need of protection. They also argued that fossils weather out easily once exposed and thus need to be collected quickly by their finder. In contrast, museum spokespersons cited examples of fossils exposed for decades with no evidence of weathering and contrasted that with examples of fossils destroyed by inexpert or hasty removal efforts. These contrasting views prompted a request from the panel for both sides to provide several specific examples in support of their case. Academic and professional society representatives contended that the public should not have to buy fossils from commercial interests who collected those specimens from public lands. They also expressed concern that fossil locations, assemblages, and specimens be preserved for scientific study, and that such knowledge be placed within nationwide data and information systems. Except for the commercial interests, all parties agreed that fossils are not a renewable resource.

Whether or not the Gordian knot this issue represents can be untied or severed is uncertain. Perhaps some magical solution is about to be revealed, but negotiations among the warring factions over the past three years have not substantially altered positions nor brokered many compromises. Some have suggested that the issue could be divided between vertebrates and invertebrates, but such an approach faces the problem that there are rare and common occurrences of both. Any attempt to list protected species is considered inadequate, because new species are continually being discovered. However, some form of resolution is sorely needed. Scientists, students, and collectors deserve a uniform policy for all public lands. The current patchwork regulatory quilt with a different policy for each agency, and often for different sites within the same agency,  does not serve the public need.  It will truly be a challenge for the panel to construct a report to Congress that will satisfy all the interested parties.

This article is reprinted with permission from The Professional Geologist, published by the American Institute of Professional Geologists. AGI gratefully acknowledges that permission.

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

Contributed by John Dragonetti, AGI Government Affairs.

Posted January 4, 2000

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