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Paleontological Resources Preservation Act

The SVP has been working for many years to protect fossils on federal lands by encouraging enactment of The Paleontological Resources Preservation Act. This effort culminated on March 30, 2009 when the Omnibus Lands Act of 2009, into which the PRPA had been incorporated, was signed and became Public Law 111-11. The provisions of this act will protect scientifically significant fossils on federal land. It provides a permitting system whereby researchers can collect and study scientifically significant fossils which will remain in the public trust. The act also provides for the collecting of common plant and invertebrate fossils for personal non- commercial use on BLM and Forest Service administered lands.

Full Text of the Bill


SVP Executive Committee
            and Government Affairs Committee members present a thank you to
            Congressman James P. McGovern for his help in securing the passage of
            legislation protecting fossils on federal lands

SVP Executive Committee and Government Affairs Committee members present a thank you to Congressman James P. McGovern for his help in securing the passage of legislation protecting fossils on federal lands.

Photo from left: Jay Lucey, Senior Legislative Assistant for Massachusetts Representative James P.McGovern; Julia Clarke; Patrick Leiggi; Ana Baez;Ted Vlamis; Glenn Storrs; Blaire Van Valkenburgh; Philip Currie; Massachusetts Representative (3rd Congressional District) James P. McGovern; Chris Brochu; Catherine Badgley; Mike Gottfried. Photo courtesy of Ted Vlamis.

SVP Executive Committee and Government
            Affairs Committee members present a thank you to Senator Daniel K. Akaka
            for his help in securing the passage of legislation protecting fossils
            on federal lands.
SVP Executive Committee and Government Affairs Committee members present a thank you to Senator Daniel K. Akaka for his help in securing the passage of legislation protecting fossils on federal lands.

Photo clockwise from top left: Julia Clarke; Glen Storrs; Kate VanZanten; Patrick Leiggi; Chris Brochu; David Brooks Senior Counsel, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee; Ana Baez; Mike Gottfried; Blaire Van Valkenburgh; Shirley Fiske, former Legislative Director for Senator Daniel K. Akaka (Hawaii); Louise Kitamura Legislative Assistant for Senator Daniel K. Akaka (Hawaii); Senator Daniel K. Akaka (Hawaii); Ted Vlamis; Catherine Badgley. Photo courtesy of Ted Vlamis.

Common Questions

Why should fossils be preserved?
Fossils are for everyone — children and adults, amateur and professional paleontologists. From fossils we learn about the history of life, but much of the story is yet to be written. Fossils from public lands are an educational and scientific resource for our generation and those yet to come. Scientifically significant fossils on federal lands belong to all the people of the United States. They should not be removed from the public domain, but preserved for the enjoyment and education of all Americans for all time.


How does the PRPA preserve fossils?
The Paleontological Resources Preservation Act codifies the existing practice of requiring that vertebrate fossils and other rare and scientifically significant fossils be collected only by qualified researchers who obtain a permit. They must agree to deposit the fossils in public institutions which will ensure their future availability to researchers and the public.
 

How does the PRPA affect amateur collecting on federal lands?
It does not change anything. Multi-use agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service often allow the recreational collecting of common plant and invertebrate fossils for non-commercial use. The PRPA ensures that this will continue, as one of the purposes of the PRPA is “To ensure that amateur collecting of rocks, minerals, and invertebrate and plant fossils on Federal lands is not affected by this Act.” It provides that “The Secretary, the Director, or any other Federal land manager, with the exception of a Federal land manager of land under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, may allow casual collecting of abundant invertebrate and plant paleontological resources, for scientific, educational, and recreational uses, without a permit, where such collection is not inconsistent with the laws governing the management of those
Federal lands and this Act.”
 

The collection of vertebrate fossils on federal lands requires a permit, and collection is allowed only for educational purposes. This practice is continued under the PRPA.
 

How does the PRPA affect private lands and Indian lands?
It does not affect them. The PRPA specifically states that “Nothing in this Act shall be construed to affect any lands other than Federal lands or affect the lawful recovery, collection, or sale of paleontological resources from lands other than Federal lands.”
 

Weren't fossils on federal lands already protected by federal laws?
Yes, but previous Federal laws were inadequate to protect vertebrate fossils and to ensure broadest access to citizens. Penalties for illegal collecting were extremely weak, and were not a deterrent because of the high commercial value commanded by vertebrate fossils.
 

Is there an urgent need to preserve these fossils?
Yes. In a study commissioned by the Forest Service, it was found that almost one-third of the paleontological sites surveyed in the Oglala National Grassland showed evidence of unauthorized collecting. In 1999, the National Park Service identified 721 documented incidents of paleontological resource theft or vandalism, many involving multiple specimens, in the national parks between 1995 and 1998.
 

Does the PRPA reflect recommendations of federal agencies?
Yes. The Department of the Interior (DOI) submitted the report “Management of Fossils on Federal and Indian Lands” to Congress before the PRPA became law. The PRPA reflects the following seven principles and recommendations:

  • Fossils on federal lands are a part of America’s heritage
    Recommendation: Future actions should reaffirm the use of federal fossils for their scientific, educational, and where appropriate, educational values.
  • Most vertebrate fossils are rare
    Recommendation: Future actions should reaffirm the restriction of vertebrate fossil collection to qualified personnel, with the fossils remaining in federal ownership in perpetuity.
  • Some invertebrate and plant fossils are rare
    Recommendation: Future actions should reaffirm the use of mission-specific agency approaches to the management of plant and invertebrate fossils.
  • Penalties for fossil theft should be strengthened
    Future actions should penalize the theft of fossils from federal lands in a way that maximizes the effectiveness of prosecutions and deters future thefts. Penalties should take into account, among other factors, the value of fossils themselves, as well as any damage resulting from their illegal collection. Future program strategies should emphasize education of federal managers, prosecutors, law enforcement personnel and the judiciary regarding the value of fossils and the techniques for the appropriate protection of fossil resources.
  • Effective stewardship requires accurate information
    Recommendation: Future actions should acknowledge the need for gathering and analyzing information about where fossils occur, in particular the critical role of inventory in the effective management of fossil resources. Increased emphasis on fossil inventory should take into consideration, where possible, regional approaches across agency lines, using modern technology such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Such work could also address specific issues, such as the impact of erosion on the loss of resources.
  • Federal fossil collections should be preserved and available for research and public education
    Future actions should affirm the importance of curating scientifically valuable fossils as federal property, often in partnership with non-federal institutions. Future program approaches should emphasize the use of modern technology to improve curation and access, as well as the sharing of information between and among federal agencies and other institutions.
  • Federal fossil management should emphasize opportunities for public involvement
    Recommendation: Future actions should include an emphasis on public education and participation in the stewardship of fossil resources. Future program approaches should emphasize the use of technology to increase public education and awareness of the importance and benefit of fossil resources.


What you should know about vertebrate fossils?
Fossil vertebrates are usually unique or rare, nonrenewable resources that constitute part of our natural heritage. They provide data by which the history of vertebrate life on Earth may be reconstructed and are one of the primary means of studying evolutionary patterns and processes as well as environmental change.
 

Many kinds of fossils, including those of most vertebrates, are rare for several reasons. Far less than 1% of the organisms that have ever lived become fossils. Many organisms are not readily preserved as fossils because they do not have hard parts. Only rather unusual sedimentary environments preserve soft parts long enough to become fossilized. The remains of small organisms are more readily destroyed by mechanical and biological processes than the remains of large organisms.
 

Also, organisms can only be preserved where sediments accumulate at a fairly high rate. Most organic remains are not buried fast enough to contribute to the fossil record. In addition, vertebrate fossils are generally less common than invertebrate fossils because there have been fewer living vertebrates than invertebrates over geologic time. Although we are fortunate to have some exceptions to these generalizations, spectacular deposits of diverse and complete organisms are rare over the history of the earth. All of this means that the chances of any vertebrate becoming a fossil are very small. Thus, vertebrate fossils are extremely valuable as bearers of information about the past. Furthermore, fossils of extinct groups are not renewable. More fossils will be discovered and collected, but always from a finite supply.
 

The rocks in which the fossils are found provide information about the environment of preservation and its climate, position in a historical sequence, and paleogeographic location. Fossil assemblages provide information about ecological interactions and communities.
 

A fossil collected without this information has lost much of its value, and we know little more than that this animal lived and died. In contrast, when contextual data are collected and studied, we begin to understand how the animal lived. As paleontologists and geologists learn more ways to interpret ancient environments and ecological communities from fossil assemblages in their original context, this information becomes more and more valuable and important.
 

The understanding of evolutionary processes and relationships comes primarily from comparing the skeletons from different animals to each other. In order to do this; researchers must be able to compare new specimens with those previously unearthed. Only when specimens are properly collected and curated in public institutions can researchers access these specimens in order to make these comparisons. And when these comparisons and interpretations are made, education and the general public greatly benefit by having access to this new interpretive knowledge.



Fact vs. Fiction

Concern: Passage of the PRPA harms amateur paleontologists and rock collectors.

Fact: This is not true. Any collecting that amateur paleontologists and rock collectors could legally do prior to passage of the PRPA is still permitted under the PRPA. For example, an amateur collector could previously legally collect common plants and invertebrates on BLM and FS land without a permit. This is still allowed under the casual collecting provision. Collection of vertebrate fossils requires a permit under existing rules and regulations. Collecting on NPS lands is by permit only. In sum, nothing changes.


One thing that should be of interest is that although the Forest Service has been allowing rock collecting in National Forests, they really have no legal authority for doing so, as current agency “organic acts” do not specifically address this recreational use of public lands. Without specific authority, this practice may be in jeopardy and future administrations could take away this privilege. The problems inherent in not having this authorization spelled out clearly were seen in the issuance of the Forest Service's 1994 proposed rules which would have prohibited amateur rock, mineral and fossil collecting on all National Forest system lands.

It is estimated that 30,000 to 70,000 comments were received from amateurs opposed to eliminating amateur collecting. The PRPA gives the needed Congressional authorization for amateur collecting on public lands. The following quotation comes from Ms. Elizabeth Estill, Deputy Chief, Programs and Legislation for the Forest Service. S. Hrg. 107-794. (S. 2727 was the 107th Congress Senate version of the bill): The Forest Service currently does allow casual collecting by amateurs without permit, but there is not anything that really formally recognizes this activity. We see S. 2727 formally allowing it, and we see that as a good thing for the casual collector.


Concern: The PRPA is overly harsh. A rock collector could become a convicted felon and therefore not be able to obtain a firearm license.

Fact: Nothing in this act affects rock collecting. Section 15 specifically states that “Nothing in this Act shall be construed to … apply to, or require a permit for, amateur collecting of a rock, mineral, or invertebrate or plant fossil that is not protected under this Act.” The felony penalties only apply if the sum of the scientific or fair market value of the paleontological resources involved and the cost of restoration and repair of such resources exceeds the sum of $1,000 or in the case of multiple convictions. The criminal and civil penalties sections of the bill only apply to the theft of paleontological resources from federal lands.


Concern: The PRPA gives federal agencies too much authority in granting permits and will restrict access to anyone not holding a PhD.

Fact: There is no change. The agencies have been using this discretion; e.g., the Forest Service and BLM have had the discretion to issue permits, and by policy, only issue permits for scientific and educational purposes. No permits are issued for the commercial collecting of paleontological resources. No permits are required for amateur collecting. Passage of this legislation ensures that as these agencies do so, they are following the wishes of the American people as expressed through their elected representatives.


Concern: The forfeiture provisions of the PRPA are too harsh and should not be applied to rock collectors.

Fact: The criminal and civil penalties in the PRPA apply only to paleontological resources, not rock collecting. Any forfeiture could only occur after conviction. Congressional passage of P.L. 106-185, the Civil Asset Forfeiture Act of 2000 requires that in all suits or actions brought for civil forfeiture of any property, that the burden of proof is on the United States to establish by preponderance of evidence that the property is subject to forfeiture. Therefore, under the current theft of property statutes at Title 18, P.L. 106-185 would offer the defendant additional protection.


Concern:
Offering rewards to informants can create a tense law enforcement environment.

Fact: A great deal of consultation (not formal) was done with all the land management agencies when this legislation was being drafted. The rewards provision was added based on input from the agencies that is was a very necessary tool for law enforcement and DOJ’s analysis of the bill concurred with this.


Concern:
The false labeling provision of the PRPA could result in people being prosecuted for honest misidentifications of fossils.

Fact: The false labeling offense applies when any false statement is made in association with a criminal offense under that section of the PRPA. This is not new authority as the agencies have had the authority to make a charge of “false labeling,” and if applicable, would be made in association with a charge under theft of federal property at 18 USC 641. The basis for this section of the act is Title 18 USC 1001.


Concern: The PRPA gives undue discretion to the agencies in permitting and enforcement.

Fact: The National Park Service, FS and BLM have had the discretion to issue permits for paleontological collection under each agency’s respective Organic Acts. Law Enforcement has all the discretion allowed under Title 18 USC 641, 1001, 1361 and any other applicable charges. Passage of this legislation ensures that as they do so they are following the wishes of the American people as expressed through their elected representatives.


Concern:
The PRPA harms rock conventions, requires a paper trail for collections made from federal lands, and penalizes those guilty of only inadvertent violations.

Fact:There is no requirement in the PRPA for certification or proof of ownership of rocks, minerals or fossils, nor in any current authority. Currently, under the Mineral Materials Act of 1947, in order to be able to collect, then sell rocks and minerals from public lands, an amateur must have a mineral materials permit from the appropriate agency, and pay royalties to the government.


Concern: The PRPA would interfere with mining on federal land.

Fact: Section 15.1 of the PRPA ensures that this will not happen. It states that:

Nothing in this Act shall be construed to (1)invalidate, modify, or impose any additional restrictions or permitting requirements on any activities permitted at any time under the general mining laws, the mineral or geothermal leasing laws, laws providing for minerals materials disposal, or laws providing for the management or regulation of the activities authorized by the aforementioned laws including but not limited to the Federal Land Policy Management Act (43 U.S.C.1701-1784),the Mining in the Parks Act,the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (30 U.S.C.1201-1358),and the Organic Administration Act (16 U.S.C.478,482,551); ….