Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Continued controversy over fossil collecting on public lands

The long-enduring debate over collecting fossils on federal lands is continuing.

According to a report by the American Geological Institute's Government Affairs Program, Arizona’s Rep. Raul Grijalva raised concerns about unintended consequences during a recent hearing on the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act (HR 554) before the House Committee on Natural Resources, Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, which he chairs.

The bills sponsor, Rep. James McGovern (D-MA) testified it “provides stiff penalties for crimes involving the theft and vandalism of Fossils of National Significance (FONS) in order to deter the illegal collection of these resources on public lands. And, it is important to note that the bill seeks only to penalize those who knowingly violate the law and seek to illegally profit from these public resources. It does not place any new restrictions on amateur collectors who by and large respect the value of these fossils. It is limited to public lands, and will in no way affect private land-owners. Furthermore, this bill mandates that all such fossils taken from federal land be curated at museums or suitable depositories. Lastly, it standardizes the permitting practices for excavation on public lands to ensure that fossils are not needlessly damaged.”

The bill was opposed Peter L. Larson, President of the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, Inc, a commercial fossil company based in South Dakota. Larson argued that the bill would limit collecting to academics only and that amateurs and commercial companies unearth fossils that would otherwise be lost to weathering or never found by the scientific community. Larson also argued against allowing scientists and federal land managers to keep secret the locations of significant finds.

This debate, which has played out over many years, comes down to a few basic battles:

· Should commercial collectors be allowed to take fossils from public lands and sell them to private collectors or should public fossils remain in public ownership for display and scientific study?

· Does allowing amateurs to collect vertebrate fossils on public land create a “back-door” commercial channel?

· Can we keep fossil locations on public lands secret in order to prevent looters from stealing the fossils and damaging or destroying the geologic context?

· What fossils on public lands, if any, are appropriate for non-scientific collecting?

Washington watchers say that HR 554 is unlikely to move forward without resolution of these long-standing differences.

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