Note: The author of this article has chosen to remain anonymous because their job requires daily interactions with the BLM, Forest Service and other agencies involved.
Some of you may already know me. I am a citizen scientist. I have stacks of rocks and dirt in bins and bags. I geek out on crinoids. I love pulling my hand lens out to show someone the wonder of serrations. I have a rock hammer in every vehicle and shale chips on the floor mats. It all started with trilobites in the rocks of a waterfall in Jacksonburg, Ohio, where I was a little farm girl. But here’s the thing- I tried very hard to be one of the lucky few that gets to sit in the ivy coated, brick buildings of academia, looking at the important stuff. What I learned, after packing my hatchback with camping gear and heading out west for a 4 month study of Sustainable Development, is that the wonders of paleontology can and should always be available to EVERYONE. The problem is, the systems in place to manage our contributions are overwhelmed and often closed to all but those in the highest positions.
I was very fortunate. I had a paleontology professor that believed that everyone could be a scientist. He championed my journey to learn what it takes to search, find, and study dinosaurs- on a very tight budget. I made incredible friends who gave me access to private land and shared their knowledge. Here are some things I learned along the way that pertain to the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act (PRPA).
Fossil collection in academia is highly competitive and very difficult to secure funding. Institutions must find and then fund their digs after a lengthy application processes. I visited the Burpee Quarry in Hanksville, UT, for instance. A kind site manager explained to me that no, they can’t take volunteer diggers, because each person there was paying HUNDREDS OF DOLLARS A DAY to be there. This is so the dig can be funded. There is an academic process for permit submission, and typically only institutions with deep pockets can ever break ground. Top-tier employees at Federal agencies get to select who extracts the fossils. It doesn’t necessarily matter who found them. There are countless fossil treasures eroding away, that no museum or college wants, as well as those that would be considered off-limits by PRPA.
There is a huge volume of reported fossil discoveries, but the Federal agencies have allocated few resources to following up and assess them. The BLM and Forest Service get their budgets cut, which means the personnel in the local offices have less time to follow up on that unusual rock that someone reported as seeing in some wash. I made an appointment with the generous BLM folks at a regional office, and learned that while there are many really amazing discoveries made, there is also a huge backlog of reported finds that have not been investigated, and many of which never will. Not to mention potential discoveries made during oil exploration, mineral extraction, coal mining, a new road…these places have to be checked out by designated professionals. Unless a giant professional Federal workforce is funded by the taxpayer and devoted to assessing the reports made by the public…. there is no way to follow through with many basic tenants of the PRPA.
To get a permit to extract a fossil and study it, you must have it stored in an approved repository. This is probably the most impossible aspect of the permitting process. From my experience, these repositories are already overtaxed and do not have the resources to store or curate what is already being found. I went to a college consortium with its own fossil museum, and had a professor that advocated for me to store a six inch piece of dinosaur bone (collected on private land) that showed signs of blood vessel preservation and still, I could not find a repository. No room. I didn’t even get responses from some museums. Consequently, this renders the task of getting “less important” finds into a repository, nearly impossible. Really, if it’s not a new species or growth form, no one seemed interested in giving up the space.
Editors note: This is going to be one of the aspects of the permitting process which will kill off the majority of invertebrate and plant fossil research currently done on public lands. EVERY fossil collected during the course of research needs to be stored at an approved repository and curated to specific standards. This includes, every brachiopod, every conodont sample, the thousands of trilobite fragments collected which later prove not relevant to the research.
The approved repository needs to be identified before a permit is issued. This is often before it is even known exactly what will be found and stored there. There is a ton of paper work and time involved for everyone, the researcher, the repository, and the staff of the agencies. The limited number of approved repositories do not have the space or resources to manage the amount of invertebrate and plant material currently collected during research. It is many times the number of vertebrate specimens they currently must handle. Yet, the Economic Impact Statement claims this additional requirement will have no negligible cost impact on approved repositories, huh?
I understand the importance of trusting the well-studied PhD- but we also live in an age where knowledge is at our fingertips, and people who were not fortunate enough to have the time or money for a doctorate, can be knowledgeable, persistent, gifted, and lucky. I had a dinosaur bone from private land, with a piece of it thin-sectioned and showing possible blood vessels- and I couldn’t get through the first basic steps needed to publish on my discovery. Also, I graduated with no financial means to enter grad school. I spent weeks backpacking the Utah desert looking for exposures of that same layer and the treasure trove of bones discussed in local circles. And you know what- I think I found it. But by then, I had learned, that even if I found those bones, I would probably never be able to get them out of the ground. Best to walk away with clean conscience, than deal with the futility of red tape. The BLM or Forest Service decides which well-funded institution gets to extract the bones. The associated professors choose their own students and colleagues to do the extraction. THIS IS THE SYSTEM ABOUT TO BE INSTITUTED FOR ALL FOSSILS, NOT JUST VERTEBRATE MATERIAL.
The new PRPA regulations would make a learning adventure like mine: backpacking and collecting fossils to bring back to college for study…practically impossible. I collected all kinds of interesting things, legally. I learned so much about geology and paleontology by doing so. The PRPA rules tear these opportunities away from everyone but those in high places. On my adventures, I met incredible, professional and amateur collectors with a body of knowledge that was mesmerizing. They included me, mentored me, and helped when no one else did. They showed me the grit and sweat of the trade, and opened my eyes to this incredible world where I can be a scientist and investigate my world without a permission slip. I can just hike and discover. Maybe I find a leaf, or a fossil beetle, or a trilobite…. but I am always on the lookout for something extra-special. I am in the field, my eyes on the ground. A person in a brick building, teaching classes, may be way more knowledgeable than us…. but their eyes are not on the ground everyday, like ours.
Finally, I want to address the trust issues between the amateur and hobby fossil collecting world, and that of academia and Federal agencies. I mean no disrespect to those who have worked, studied, and sacrificed to be in the privileged positions which they hold. I very much want to be one of you. But I do not have the circumstances you have. I do have a gift for noticing things on the ground. And I have a voracious mind that devours books, and knowledge. This is the same with much of the amateur fossil collecting community. We are out there to discover and SHARE. What is the fun of finding something, and telling no one? Amateur collectors, and even commercial ones are some of the most knowledgeable individuals in the world, regarding the specimens they deal with. In my experience, the amateur community has spent massive amounts of their own time and funds publishing books, contributing to the Smithsonian and museum collections, and carefully preparing and preserving fossils. If an oil company can rip through the fossil layers for black gold, then a person should be allowed to sit down with their child and split some rocks for a trilobite- without the fear of fines or imprisonment.
Let’s keep this all in perspective. If the academic and Federal community is concerned about preserving significant finds, then they should welcome with open arms, the people that make the discoveries and who want to share without reprisal of being cut off from their interests. Maybe that means letting a family take their kid out to look for fossils without fear of running afoul of the vaguely defined and impractical rules. That way they grow up with their eyes on the ground, also.