Below is our comments provided on the BLM regulation, in particular as they pertain to the casual collecting of fossils.
As written the regulations are so restrictive on casual collectors that they completely contradict the law which states, “the Secretary shall allow casual collecting without a permit” There are numerous technical, and practical issues that can either leave almost all casual collectors in violation of the law and exposed to penalties, create situations that encourage the destruction of fossil resources or will lead to significantly reduced sharing of information with the scientific community.
Had these rules previously been in place over the past 100 years, thousands of new fossil species would not have been discovered by amateurs and contributed to science. Millions of children would not have been inspired by fossils contributed to educational programs, passionate amateur collectors, dedicated amateur clubs and organizations.
Academic invertebrate paleontologists and professional researchers would have been completely hamstrung by bureaucratic red tape, preventing them from conducting research into invertebrate and plant fossils on federal lands lands. Invertebrate researchers are typical very reliant on their relationships with the casual collecting community, who are often a major source of specimens, associated data, and site information used in research. These regulations codify into law that this relation should not exist.
Below are comments on the key sections in regards to the casual collecting of fossils without a permit.
49.810 (1) “Common invertebrate or plant paleontological resources are invertebrate or plant fossils that have been established as having ordinary occurrence and wide-spread distribution. Not all invertebrate or plant paleontological resources are common.”
This section attempting to define “common invertebrate or plant” fossils is fundamentally flawed on many levels, as well as creating a whole host of practical issues which run counter to the intent of the law. Several of the practical considerations described below are so severe that they lead to a situation where any good intentioned, casual collector can easily find themself in violation of the law.
- There is no definition provided as to what level of classification (species, genus, order, class, etc) fossils are considered rare vs common. This leaves it completely up for interpretation, which will cause a lot of confusion. Attempting to define it too narrowly will create many additional problems, as fossils are frequently reclassified by scientists, and the classifications even for some very abundant fossils are under debate.
- There is no definition of “wide-spread distribution” provided. It could be interpreted as having a world-wide distribution, being found at multiple localities in a mountain range, or a large number of horizons at a single site.
- Geographic distribution has no relation to abundance or what most people think of when they think rare vs. common. Many extremely abundant fossils have very narrow geographic distributions. At the same time many non-abundant fossils have a widespread geographic distribution but are only known from rare fragments and have never been found complete. I can think of many species of invertebrates, that are only known from a horizon in a mountain, yet are so abundant numerous specimen can be found in a very short time. Likewise I can think of many types of invertebrates known from dozens of geological formations world-wide, but even fragments are extremely rare and complete specimens have never been recovered.
- When you define an invertebrate fossil, are you talking about a fragment, a shell, or the whole animal? For example, heads and tails of certain species of trilobites are extremely common, yet the same species has never been found complete.
- From a more practical standpoint, rare and common fossils are almost ALWAYS intermixed in the same geological units. It’s impossible to collect common fossils without occasionally encountering rare ones.
- Fossils, and in particularly small invertebrate fossils can be very difficult to identify in the field, even by highly trained professionals. They are often covered by rock (such as being found in cross section) when found making it impossible to determine if it is a common or rare invertebrate in the field. It must be prepared to remove the surrounding rock in a controlled environment to determine what it is and how complete it is. This creates a situation where someone collecting fossils often has no way of knowing if they are in violation of the law or not.
- Leaving a rare fossil in place, as required by the law in most cases will lead to its destruction by the elements. In particular surfaces of freshly split shale weather extremely fast when exposed to water, sun, freeze/thaw cycles, etc. Some shales (Fillmore Formation, etc) can degrade within hours of being split if not stabilized. Rare fossils left in place will often be rapidly destroyed by nature before an “expert” could return to the location.
- Rare versus common is often more of a function of collecting bias than anything else. That is a certain type of fossil might be considered rare or non-abundant simply because not many people have tried to collect that type of fossil. I can think of many cases where there has been a particular type of invertebrate fossil that has only been known from one or two specimens, yet someone then locates a new locality or new horizon at a known locality where that type of invertebrate is extremely abundant. The regulations create a self-perpetuating loop where these rare fossils will remain rare simply because collecting them is restricted. Without amateurs out looking for new types of fossils, the amount of new species found and brought to the attention of researchers will slow to a trickle. At the same time someone who does collect a rare fossil only to learn later of it’s importance (such as after it is exposed during preparation) will be very hesitant to share the discovery with researchers as they would be in violation of the law and risk prosecution.
Part of Proposed Solution: Rare vs Common fossils should be defined at either the class or sub-class level. The list of restricted or collectable classes of fossils should be publicly posted online so that casual collectors know specifically what is collectable and what is not. If you start getting anymore granular that defining it at the class level, you begin to open yourself up to issues with frequent reclassifications/redescription of fossils by scientists.
It’s very important that there is a single, easily accessible list of defines a common fossil that can be collected or it will cause substantial confusion. It’s frequently the case currently if you talk to two different people at the same BLM office you will get two very different answers in regards to a topic that needs to have a definite answer.
Secondly, this section must allow for the careful collection and preservation of potentially rare invertebrate and plant fossils in the field by casual collectors. Failure to allow this will result in the loss and destruction of the majority of rare specimens discovered by casual collectors before trained BLM personnel could return to the site to assess the find.
As it is, it is often the case that BLM personnel do not review reported vertebrate discoveries in the field before significant erosion occurs, if they ever do. It is critical that IF the regulations require that if casual collectors leave potentially important discoveries undisturbed in the field, that the BLM is also held accountable to carrying out assessments in a timely manner. Particularly given that the volume of potentially rare invertebrate finds may be significantly higher than those of vertebrates (depending on the definitions which are not yet adequately defined) this will likely require the addition of a large number of adequately trained personnel to BLM field offices. The failure to hold the BLM accountable for doing this in the regulations represents a failure to “protect paleontological resources” as required by the PRPA.
49.810 (2) Reasonable amount means a maximum of 25 pounds per day per person, not to exceed 100 pounds per year per person. Pooling of individuals’ daily amounts to obtain pieces in excess of 25 pounds is not allowed.
These amounts are so restrictive that they run counter to the intent of the law, which is to allow for casual collecting of fossils by the public without permit. At the heart of the problem is that that collecting limits are loosely based on the collecting limits for petrified wood. There is one, big, fundamental difference. Unlike petrified wood, most fossils are found embedded in the rock and can not be separated from the matrix, particularly under field conditions. A weight-based limit might make sense for some small fossils that have weathered free of rock such as pieces of coral or brachiopods, but not most invertebrates that are preserved on or in rock which is frequently hundreds of times heavier than the fossil itself.
For example: In collecting fossil trilobites it is very often the case that a single trilobite fossil which may only be a couple inches long, and whose physical shell probably weighs less than an ounce will be preserved on a rock weighing more than 25 lbs. It’s not possible to “trim” the rock down further in the field without running a high risk of destroying the delicate fossil. A single, common ammonite fossil found inside a concretion also may frequently weigh more than 25 lbs. You may have multiple fossils associated on a single piece of matrix weighing over 25 lbs, but by separating them and only taking one you loose valuable information that might be scientifically important in the future. What is a collector supposed to do in this situation?
Even in the case where single fossils, including matrix weigh less than 25 lbs you create the situation where collectors will have to be very selective about what they take with them leaving the remaining fossils to be destroyed by the elements. It’s not uncommon for me to find several dozen trilobite fossils in a day of splitting shale. Typically I will collect them, maybe keep one or two (at most) for my collection and donate the rest to schools and educational programs. These laws would force me to keep one or two of them and leave the rest to weather into dust (freshly split shales weather very rapidly) or try to trim the rocks down in the field leading to many fossils being destroyed. Overly restrictive collecting limits will lead to increased destruction or damage of fossil resources in an attempt to comply with them.
Proposed Solution: My suggestion would be to break this section into separate categories for fossils free of matrix versus fossils embedded in the matrix. A suggested rewrite might be.
“Reasonable amount means (i) for fossils that are collected free from rock a maximum of 25 pounds per day per person, plus one piece per day, not to exceed 250 pounds per year per person; (ii) fossils that are collected on or within rocks a maximum of 250 pounds per day, not to exceed 2,500 pounds per year. Pooling of daily quotas to obtain pieces larger than 250 pounds is not allowed.”
This brings the quotas for fossils free of matrix inline with current petrified wood collecting limits, while also accounting for fossils found on/in matrix which the bulk of the weight is rock. These limits of 250 lbs per day and 2,500 lbs per year of rock is not out of line with collecting limits of rocks by some BLM field offices.
Individual BLM offices would still have the option to restrict collecting limits further from these default amounts, but this puts the decision in the hands of those who know the land they manage best.
49.810 (4) “Non-commercial personal use means a use other than for purchase, sale, financial gain, or research.”
I find this section very disturbing as the assumption is made the casual collecting and research should be mutual exclusive activities. Responsible casual collectors should work with researchers, sharing information and important specimens. While I go out and collect fossils for my own personal fun and enjoyment, the biggest thrill is discovering something that is new to science that can form the basis of future research.
As written, this section puts casual collectors in violation of the law if they record and share data with researchers, provide new localities, or donate specimens to research. These are all things that are absolutely critical for continued research into invertebrate and plant fossils on public lands. The amateur fossil collectors I know have in aggregate donated thousands of specimens to research, and their discoveries as well as associated data they recorded in the field has formed the basis for countless research papers and publications. These amateurs do not have graduate degrees in paleontology. They do not do it as a profession typically spending their weekends in the field. They are not associated with a specific institution. Yet their contributions are undeniable and they are absolutely critical to future research.
Recommended Change: The “or research” should be removed from the section.
49.810 (5) “Non-powered hand tool means a small tool, such as a geologic hammer, trowel, or sieve, that does not use or is not operated by a motor, engine, or other mechanized power source, and that can be hand-carried by one person.”
First of all the PRPA does not stipulate that agencies should define and regulate the specific hand tools used to collect fossils. So, the language “means a small tool, such as a geological hammer, trowel or sieve” is outside the scope of the law and should be removed.
Restrictions on hand tools to geological hammers or trowels seem to be based on the idea that fossil are always found in soft rock or soil. They aren’t…. Many of the invertebrate fossil localities are composed of extremely dense, thick bedded and often massive limestone. The fossils are found inside of the rock not on bedding planes and this rock simply can not be broken to find the fossils with a geological hammer or trowel. This requires heavier hand tools in order to collect the localities, and these restrictions would lead to the vast MAJORITY of known invertebrate localities being uncollectable. This overly restrictive regulation is in contradiction to the law that specifies that casual collecting must be allowed as it arbitrarily restricts collecting based on the density and thickness of the rock layers.
It’s pretty safe to say that had these tool restrictions on casual collectors been in place, less than half the currently known trilobite species from the Great Basin in Utah/Nevada would have been discovered.
Proposed Solution: “Non-powered hand tool refers to a tool that can be hand carried by one person and that does not use or is not operated by a motor, engine, or other mechanized power source.”
49.810 (3) “Negligible disturbance means little or no change to the surface of the land and minimal or no effect to natural and cultural resources, specifically”…
Every known invertebrate fossil dig site I can think of in Utah and Nevada amounts to on the order of 10 acres of total land disturbance representing more than 100 individual localities out approximately 70 million acres under management. Both the aggregate and individual land disturbances from decades of recreational fossil collecting is negligible.
Millard County, Utah is by far the most heavily collected area by amateur fossil collectors in the US. Trilobite fossils have been popularly collected from several mountain ranges in this county for decades. Every known trilobite quarry/dig site on BLM land was mapped and found to create an aggregate land disturbance of about 5 acres out of around 3 million acres under management. In contrast one of the commercial stone quarries operating in Millard County and quarrying the exact same fossil bearing layers has created larger disturbances in just the past few years than decades of casual collecting at all of the localities combined.
The impacts of casual collecting of very negligible when compared to the land disturbances made each year by other allowed activities on BLM land both recreational (not requiring permits, or individual EPA studies) and commercial. These ranging from off-road vehicles, cattle grazing, community gravel pits, mining, oil drilling, road construction and the BLM’s own maintenance activities. Will the BLM impose such a strict definition and a 3 x 3 foot standard on these other activities to be fair to all users?
From a practical perspective the 3×3 foot restrictions and 10 feet between diggings works when you are dealing with soil, gravel or loose shale, but not when dealing with collecting limestone and hard shale. Limestone and hard shale is where the vast majority of invertebrate and plant fossils are found.
When collecting fossils from hard rock you have to use natural seams and fractures in the rock and these don’t obey set rules. If pull up a slab of hard shale from the hillside it will break at a natural weak point. This natural, weak point maybe 12 inches from you or several feet from you. You are put in a situation where you can be in violation of the rule based simply on where the rock naturally decides to break and typically you will not even know before you attempt to remove the slab of rock.