Is this new legislation or law?
No, this is not a new law, the legislation called the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act (PRPA) was signed into law in 2009. What is happening now is public comment on the proposed regulations required to interpret and enforce the law.
Why are these regulations being written?
In order to comply with PRPA, the Department of Interior (DOI) is required to write rules defining specific terms and describing how the law will be interpreted, enforced and violators penalized. The part of specific interest to fossil collectors centers around “casual collecting” which will regulate collecting and using fossils from Federal lands managed by the DOI. The regulations controlling casual collecting fossils on lands managed by the US Forest Service was finalized on April 17, 2015.
What do these regulations cover?
The proposed regulation dictates how professional paleontologists can access, publish on and collect fossils from lands administered by DOI, formalizes the prohibition on commercially collecting fossils, and defines terms affecting how the common person can “casually” collect fossils.
When does the comment period on the regulations end?
The public comment period on the regulations ends Feb 6, 2017. Comments must be received by that date. This means submitted to the Federal public comments website or received by US mail, which means hardcopy comments must be mailed before the deadline. Public comments related to proposed permit forms ended on Jan 6, 2017.
What lands do these regulations apply to?
The regulations apply to all lands managed by the Department of Interior (DOI) which includes the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the National Park Service (NPS), the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The US Forest Service (USFS) separately published their final final regulations on April 17, 2015. For the purposes of casual collectors, the proposed regulations apply to lands managed by the BLM and BOR since lands managed by the NPS and FWS are closed to casual collecting.
To provide an example of the scope of the lands, the BLM alone manages 258 million surface acres which is the vast majority of public lands in the Western States.
Do these regulations ban casual/amateur/hobby collecting of fossils on BLM and BOR lands?
No, the law specifically allows for “casual collecting” of “common invertebrate and plant” fossils on lands managed by BLM and BOR. However, the regulations are so restrictive as to make it practically impossible to collect fossils on BLM and BOR managed lands, effectively stopping casual collecting which is specifically allowed under the law.
What are the proposed regulations regarding casual collecting?
The proposed regulations place the following restrictions on casual collectors. You will be breaking the law and therefore subject to fines and/or imprisonment for up to five years if you break any one of them.
- You can collect invertebrate and plant fossils defined as being “common”. The proposed regulation only vaguely defines common fossils as of “ordinary occurrence and widespread in distribution”.
- You can collect fossils to a maximum of 25 lbs a day totaling 100 lbs a year. That is a lot of crinoid columnals, but consider a leaf or trilobite fossil in a rock, depending on the rock size you may only be allowed to collect four per year.
- While collecting you can make only negligible surface disturbance. These disturbances are limited to 3 foot by 3 foot area, with a ten foot separation between each disturbance, and must be backfilled as to be substantially unnoticeable to a casual observer.
- Fossils collected by casual collectors cannot be bought, sold, traded, or used for research.
- The law says only non-powered hand tools may be used to collect fossils. The proposed regulations give examples of a geological hammer and hand trowel.
Can you get a permit to collect fossils?
Proposed regulations say permits are issued to paleontologists. The proposed regulation also says a casual collector may request a permit to collect an uncommon fossil, however conditions of the permit requirement you give the agency the location of where the fossil was found and you must give the fossil to a bureau-approved institution: you cannot keep the fossil for yourself. Here is a proposed list of requirements:
- Permits are only issued for research purposes or to a casual collector, who meets some unstated criteria, to collect an uncommon fossil to give to an approved institution.
- Permits are only issued to someone with a graduate degree from an accredited institution in paleontology or related field of study with major emphasis in paleontology or equivalent experience.
- Any excavation larger than one square meter is subject to analysis under National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) prior to the removal of the fossil. (This requirement is not supported by NEPA, it is only a long standing practice of the bureau for paleontology survey permits.)
- When collecting under permit, all fossils damaged by the permit holder or their subordinates must be reported to the bureau.
How does PRPA affect researchers?
While the permitting requirements may make sense for large-scale vertebrate excavations due to the associated ground disturbance and required access, they are overly burdensome for small-scale research work typically associated with invertebrates and plants.
University field trips (not research excursion) onto public land, because they are not considered casual collecting, must have a permit from the bureau.
Fossil localities cannot be disclosed. That means all participants of a university field trip onto public land must sign a non-disclosure statement saying they will not tell anyone where the fossil sites are located. The statements must be filed with the bureau.
Paleontologists are not allowed to publish locality information thus making it difficult for the research to be reproduced by others. Not to mention many academic publications and grants require publication of locality information.