Say NO to Akaka Governed Public Land
by Beverly Billingsley

A bitter battle has raged over collecting fossils on public lands since the Baucus bill was introduced in congress in 1993. 100,000 collectors raised their voices and stopped the bill. Since then other Paleontology "Protection" bills have gone to congress. None became law. Now we are faced with Senator Akaka's S546 in the Senate and it's sister bill in the House HR2416. Both are attacks on collecting, like the Baucus bill was. However, these bills are back door attacks.

There are not enough fossil collectors to stop these bills. I wrote Bob Keller asking him to post a short plea to rock and mineral collectors, in the hopes that others would contact their congressional representative. Bob offered me even more space. Thanks Bob.

The bills are on a fast track. They have been sent to only a few committees and rushed to decision. The Senate passed S546 on July 17th and sent it to the house on the 18th. Either the Senators didn't read what they voted for or they want Akaka-governed public lands. That would be bad for every outdoor person. These bills are the forerunners for future attacks on rock and mineral collecting, off road travel, and anything else that might make America less than pristine and unavailable.

"Federal sentencing guidelines" are credited with diminishing number of arrowheads sold on eBay. "We support penalties that are consistent with recent amendments to the federal sentencing guidelines of the U.S. Sentencing Commission for increased penalties for cultural heritage resources," -testimony by Elizabeth Estill of the Forest Service. The federal sentencing guidelines have unspecified, sky's the limit potential penalties.

Fossil collectors and others, this is really a question of erosion of liberties or more precisely, it's a mudflow of gigantic proportions. Arrowheads went first. Now fossils are involved in a limpet-like sneaky and surreptitious attack. If this bill becomes law, a similar bill will be proposed to protect minerals, then land from 4-wheelers and off-roaders, and who knows what else. Additionally if this bill is passed it jeopardizes existing ownership rights for fossils on "split estates" (explained later).

Today when we collect on BLM land, fines for errors are set at $50 for a violation. If this bill becomes law, an "assessment" (similar to a fine) will be made in civil, not criminal cases. The assessment will be based on the government's valuation of the fossils, as well as the government's cost to repair damage to a site or fossils, and other factors. It will double for multiple violations. And you will be subject to forfeiture of vehicles, equipment and anything else they believed was used to take the fossils.

Under the proposed law, there will be no trial by jury. Bureaucrats (some agencies do not have paleontologists) will decide the "assessment." Little thought will be given to the complexity of fossil values. AND if you request a court review, "In such action, the validity, amount, and appropriateness of such penalty shall not be subject to review" -direct quote from proposed bill.

The federal government takes aggressive positions. A paleontologist and his wife a preparator, bought an Allosaurus and sold it for $400,000 in 1991. According an audit report by the BLM and the General Accounting Office the fossil was valued at $500,000. However, newspapers said federal investigators valued it at $700,000 and, "The couple face not only the state theft charges but a federal lawsuit seeking $2.1 million in damages." -Salt Lake City (AP) September 5th 2001

The upshot: Incautious collectors and all newbies are at risk of severe financial penalties. Even if fines are minimal, fossil collecting-and not just collecting, but important discoveries will be diminished by the passage of these bills. Newspapers, television, the Internet will let everyone know that the fossil collecting bears an unacceptable risk.

Aside from the severity of the penalties for errors, the bill has a number of problems directly related to fossil collecting. Before I get to them, I want to tell you a little bit more about Akaka's governing of public and other lands.

Last year he proposed a similar bill. In it he tried to take control of fossils on Indian lands, through his definitions of Federal land. That was removed. That bill also assaulted fossil ownership on split estates (surface owner with government holding mineral rights). All he has to do is exclude split estates in the proposed bill; he won't. It has been excluded in certain mining bills, "Federal lands does not include . Stockraising Homestead lands" [note: those are split estates] --16166 Federal Register / Vol. 66, No. 57 / Friday, March 23, 2001.

So why aren't "Stockraising Homestead lands" excluded in these proposed bills? Perhaps it's not excluded, because many of the split estates are located in dinosaur country. If this bill passes, sooner or later the government will attempt to claim a dinosaur fossil. Some third generation homesteader will have to fight to retain ownership of the fossils on his land. Failure to "exclude" opens the door to government fossil grabs. Eventually split estate fossils will become government owned, if this bill becomes law.

Serious fossils collectors have no role in Akaka-governed public lands. Here are some fossil collecting problems:

"Casual collecting." Re: mining, "the lack of clarity in the types of activities permissible under 'casual use' has led to inconsistencies and, occasionally, environmental damage."-Federal register, Nov 21, 2000, 70099. It's a longer definition than this one.

"No excavation." ''We're not trying to ensnare the amateur collector, like a Boy Scout picking up rocks. We want to stop illegal excavation,'' said Akaka's press secretary, Michael Mershon. -Boston Globe. Excavations were called "vandalism" in testimony.

"Reasonable amount." State BLM regulations vary from 25 pounds (fossils or minerals in Arizona) to 250 pounds in Oregon. Some state offices do not publish guidelines. The Department of Interior failed to respond in its report. The Forest Service will be clamoring for no holes or cat-sized holes and will likely have the upper hand.

"Site closures." The bill gives federal agencies the right to close sites. To keep sites secret, some will "not be listed publicly" (see below). Erroneously collecting on any of these will subject you to the "federal sentencing guidelines."

As things stand, fossil and mineral collecting are not legal on: developed recreation sites and areas, campgrounds, archeological, cultural, and Indian "sacred sites," historic and prehistoric sites and districts, cabins, mining claims, in caves, BLM stockpiles of crushed rock, National Natural Landmarks, natural areas, "Areas of Concern," special management areas, Wilderness Areas, caves, posted paleontological sites; restricted sites, seasonally closed land (for fire, wildlife, or public safety), and other's which may not be listed publicly. -from various state BLM websites.

"significant or uncommon fossils." Heck a newbie may not even recognize busted up vertebrate fossils. That's enough to get them fined.

"Scientific and educational value." There are 260 million acres of BLM land. 20 million acres have known paleontological value. Yet, paleontologists only request 100 permits annually for scientific study. Most of those are issued to museums (to collect material for display) or to colleges (for student education).

National Academy of Sciences (NAS), Washington, DC is an independent advisor to the government. Their latest report to congress, "Our National Resources in Peril-2002," documents overflowing repositories, lost collections, ill documented old and new collections, and little progress in making collections available for study. The report predicts 10 million geo-science donations will be lost because of the storage problems. Further it predicts de-accession (get rid of) materials-also for lack of space and funding.

The BLM requested $500,000 a year for three years running, in order to do something about the problem. They were turned down every year. The estimated cost of the bill aimed at catching a few thieves is $500,000. Akaka will spend that to make our public lands safe from thieves, but not to fix storage problems, or to position our government agencies to accept 10 million corporate donations of geo-science material.

While amateurs and professional paleontologists argue over collecting on public lands, here is what the same independent advisor to government wrote in 1987 about fossils.

"Paleontology is best served by unimpeded access to fossil and fossil-bearing rocks in the field. Paleontology's need for unimpeded access is in sharp contrast to the prevailing situation in archeology's access, and includes all collection and removal of fossiliferous material for study and preservation.

Generally, no scientific purpose is served by special system of notification before collecting/reporting after collecting; functions are performed by existing mechanisms of scientific communication. Scientific role of the manager should facilitate exploration for & collection of paleontological materials."

All the hot air about scientific and educational value, and protecting our national heritage is exactly that-hot air. We need an army collecting, cataloging, and studying fossils, but the only army available is amateur collectors.

In his introduction of S546 to the Senate, Akaka said, "Fossils are too valuable to be left within the general theft provisions that are difficult to prosecute, and they are too valuable to the education of our children not to ensure public access." Here's what he said about public access in the same introduction, "as we look toward the future, public access to fossil resources will take on a new meaning as digital images of fossils become available worldwide."

Write now. Say no to these bills. It is easy at this link: United States House of Representatives
Then follow up with a call to his office and/or write a letter to both their local and their Washington DC office.

Call local rock, mineral, or fossil clubs. Call your local paper or write a letter to the editor. Call your child's science teacher. Call leaders of scout troops. Call anyone who is who would be interested in keeping fossiling alive for the children.

You may use any or all of what I have written here or on my Fossil Legislative Website.

Beverly Billingsley from Nevada

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Bob Keller