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Re: Baucus Bill

At 12:37 PM 9/28/95, Jeff Poling wrote:
>   The United States government has the power and responsibility to manage
>public resources.

        This is point that cannot be emphasized enough.  Despite what
anyone thinks, ours is _not_ a 100% pure capitalistic society, primarily
because the government _does_ own capital and regulate facets of the
economy.  The American version of capitalism _is_ that the government's
primary function (although certainly not its _only_ one) is to regulate the
use of limited resources for the common good.

>Private oil companies and coal mining companies and gold
>mining companies, etc., are allowed access to private lands in return for
>some sort of compensation.  Fossils are no different a resource than gold et
>al, and indeed I argue that they are one hell of a lot less important.  If
>the government is going to stop allowing commercial access to fossils then
>to be consistent it has to also end access to ALL resources on public land.

        WHOSE private lands?  To some degree, mining and energy resource
companies are given access to restricted lands (read:  national forests,
parks, etc.), but not much.  "Wise-use" fundamentalists would love to
remove all restrictions on such access; pro-environmental organizations
would love to remove it.  The question is summed up best by your statement
on the value of fossils.  Strategically, no, fossils aren't nearly as
important as, say, molybdenum or titanium, or things in such vastly limited
abundance that if you can get them closer and sooner than not, then the
need may be real.  (Of course, all that need is just perception as well...)

        IMHO, the matter breaks down into one of common good over time.
Some things, like fossils, provide additions to our collective (read:
human) knowledge.  This knowledge does not fade with time; what we learn
500 years from now will depend highly on what we learn today -- that is, we
can be _much_ further along as a species 500 years from now, or we can be
just a _little_ more "advanced."  Every tidbit of knowledge helps expand
our overall knowledge!!!  Placing ephemeral, aesthetic things (like mining
gold to be, in large part, used in jewelry) or in things with alternative
sources (mining for coal instead of utilizing solar energy, for example)
are, again IMHO, frivolous. However, there are _no_ substitutes for fossils
to give us knowledge of prehistoric life, and they aren't ephemeral because
what we learn about them today will affect our knowledge of things down the

>   The fact of the matter is that without the dollars to collect, preserve,
>study and display fossils collected on public land, the consequences of
>allowing only professional collection of fossils are no different than
>private collection.  The fossils in question are more than likely going to
>erode away and the few that are collected, unless they're "sexy" specimens,
>are probably going to end up in some basement somewhere never to be seen
>again (the last I heard was that there are still specimens from the Andrews
>Expedition that have not been properly studied, and that the basement of
>Brigham Young's football stadium is filled with jacketed fossils).  So the
>public loses either way.  Either important information is destroyed due to
>careless collection or it's destroyed due to erosion.  Either the fossil is
>never seen again by the public and scientific community because it's in a
>private collection, or it's never seen again because it's locked up never to
>be seen again in a museum basement because there is neither manpower nor
>funds to study the specimen.

        This is a common fallacy:  this "either-or" perception people have
about fossil collecting.  Some see it as just black-and-white:  either
fossils are used commercially or no amateurs can go out and find fossils,
period.  That simply isn't true.  The obvious alternative is to allow
amateurs to go out and find fossils -- I'd be the first one to acknowledge
that by far and away the majority of major finds are made by amateurs , and
that they are an absolutely necessary facet of the science! -- but then
work in conjunction with the professionals.  Everyone wins:  the amateurs
get the thrill of discovery, and (unless the professional is a complete
jerk) gets to work on the scientific end of things by helping dig, and
maybe even research, on the specimen.  Programs like this are already
underway in many places; the Denver Museum of Natural History's
"Paleontology Certification" program is one of the biggest and most
susccessful.  The only thing that this system removes from the extant
equation is that the amateur doesn't get to put the fossil on the mantle at
home...but then again, molding and casting is pretty terrific, and I know
very few amateurs who'd be really upset if they had to settle for a cast of
their discovery (since they would have gotten to help with the real one
anyway) as opposed to the real one (or none at all).

>   I always say that in a free society you err on the side of freedom.  You
>can cry that fossils on public land belong to the public, but they will end
>up only as the toys of paleontologists and museum curators.  Few actually
>end up on display.  The government should be in the business of MANAGING the
>access of private citizens to resources on public lands , rather than
>restricting it only to a priveleged or educated elite.

        Society can err on the side of freedom only if the public is
well-educated, which is, sadly, not a statement the USA can make.  If
everything were left entirely up to the whims of the public, then we would
have no arts -- no art museums, symphonies, etc., much (most?) of which is
paid for by taxes collected by the government for the preservation of those
resources.  The public, left all up to itself, would almost certainly not
fund these things to the same degree, and they would vanish from our
culture. Similarly, such limited resources as fossils also must be
preserved. Cultural depletion means educational depletion, and serves only
to push us backwards in terms of overall human collective knowledge.  We
cannot progress if we lose information based on our limited resources.

        The biggest fallacy of your above comments is that fossils are
hardly "toys" of paleontologists.  Museums and fossil collections are most
certainly _not_ limited to displays!!!  In every museum (including those
associated with universities), collections are open to public viewing; all
the public has to do is ask (and perhaps make an appointment).
Professional paleontologists hardly wish to ostracize the amateur
community; to the contrary, most would rather work _with_ them!!  If
amateurs cooperate with professionals, then both the professionals and the
amateurs can win, and the science moves forward.  If the amateurs insist on
acting selfishly, then they may win some ephemeral, transitory
materialistic victory, but the professional loses, and the science goes
nowhere very quickly.

        I would implore you to rethink your position.

Jerry D. Harris
Shuler Museum of Paleontology
Southern Methodist University
Box 750395
Dallas  TX  75275-0395
(214) 768-2750
FAX:  (214) 768-2701
        (Compuserve:  73132,3372)

---------/O\------*     --->|:|:|>     w___/^^^\--o

"If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and
quacks like a duck, then it is the sister taxon to,
but cannot parsimoniously be, the direct ancestor
to all other ducks."

                                --  _not_ W. Hennig

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