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Re: Fossil Ownership

Roger Stephenson wrote (in part)

>To make a statement to the effect that there should never ever be a
>profit made from paleontological specimens really goes out on a very
>weak limb. How many professional paleontologist work for free? How
>many major musuems charge admission fees? How many publishers of
>scientific papers and books give them away to anyone that wants them?
>Whether we like it or not money is a driving force behind
>paleontology, maybe not THE force (i.e. Star Wars :-) ) but a powerful
>one anyway.

Roger et al, 

Here's my thoughts, taken from a missive submitted for discussion at the
last GSA conference.

"Commercial collecting and the sale of fossils is driven by one simple fact:
There is a market for fossils.  This point is instrumental in composing
policy that is effective and fair.  Unfortunately, there is too much gray in
the palette of commercial dealings for simple regulation to be easily
written or competently enforced.

The issue of fossil conservation is multivariate and complex.  I suggest
that the solution requires attention to the programs and processes that have
been demonstrated to work.

  Fossils have value, intrinsic and extrinsic.  The intrinsic value is that
held by the very nature of having once been alive and now providing a
glimpse at past life and environment.  The extrinsic value is that awarded
by human interest, which may or may not have monetary value and it is
heavily skewed by relative scarcity.

  The professional paleontologist is proportionately more interested in the
intrinsic value of a fossil than it's extrinsic value.  It is only by study,
analysis, discussion and publication, that the fossil's intrinsic value can
be established and shared.  Unfortunately, there 'appears' to be a hierarchy
in paleontology that places greater intrinsic value along a continuum that
strangely mirrors the "chain of being" paradigm of the 18th and 19th
centuries.  Because the invertebrates greatly outnumber vertebrates, are
small, uneventful, and perhaps even unremarkable, invert paleo folks are
challenged to make their discoveries exciting for other paleontologists and
the lay community.  When was the last time you read in the popular press
about the new Inoceramus found in Surinam?  Instead we hear about the
earliest primate, the largest dinosaur, the biggest teeth and so on.
 Academia is cash-challenged, relying on bequeathments, endowments and
grants to fund research.  Professors are torn between their contract to
teach, the need to research and publish, and arranging necessary field work
(and perhaps have a family life too). ...  There is very little economic
motive for supporting paleontological research.

 Commercial concerns are profit-driven and either thrive or fail dependent
on the accumen of the owners and the strength of the market.  Some
commercial ventures actually incorporate science into their business
philosophy.  In this case, contextual data is collected along with the
specimen itself.  Significant time and money is put into preparation and
sometimes the specimens are duplicated (casts) before being offered for
sale, which is no different than the actions of many museum
curators/preparators.  But all too frequently, fossil sellers do simply
plunder and sell.

y modest proposal builds upon the strengths of each of these groups (other
than the Rich and Tasteless).

1) Association and education
When people are disenfranchised from any process, they harbor resentment and
find ways to participate outside proscribed methods.  This is the current
state of paleontology in the US, in my opinion.  Rather than finding ways to
further separate the interested parties, steps need to be taken to
incorporate the positive aspects each group can bring to the field.

Museums and Universities with Paleontological holdings should encourage, if
not sponsor, coalition of academics, amateurs and fossil purveyors.  These
associations should first educate the membership in the context and
intrinsic value of fossils.  There are several such associations in the
United States including the program at Denver Museum of Natural History
which appears to be a successful venture.  The benefit of a tripartite
coalition is obvious:  paleontological analysis is reserved to the
professional group, manpower and some funding comes from the amateur
community and commercial collectors can contribute equipment, funding and
labor, plus make available surplus specimens to the market for additional
cash flow into the association for future research.

Draw upon the time and money of trained amateurs and purveyors to help fund
and execute scientific collection of fossils within the research areas of
the intitution's interests.  Research areas on public land would be
permitted, controlled by the permitted institution, and staffed by trained
individuals.  Superfluous fossils, unnecessary for research and lacking
significant intrinsic paleontological value should be freely available for
amateur and commercial collectors to hold and or sell.

Fossil resources on Federal lands would be managed by a Regional
Paleontologist (RP), whose role would be to assess fossil resources, make
determinations of significance and issue and control permits for any
collecting other than surface collecting.  Federal Lands would be open to
surface collecting by anyone.  Along the lines of Alberta's laws.  No tools
allowed, and significant finds would have to be reported to the regional
paleontologist.  Institutions having research interests in a particular
region or particular fauna/flora would register with the RP.  Any finds
relevant to the institutional interests would be reported by the RP to the

Lagerstatten sites, regardless of taxonomic representation, should be
strictly controlled for the sole reason that they provide unique information
about communities, environment and taphonomy.

As Federal funds dry up, institutions cut back research and staff.  This can
not continue unabated.  Building on the knowledge that there is a market for
fossils, institutions could enter into a partnering arrangement with
commercial collectors.  This joint effort would allow the commercial
interests to make casts, molds and other reproductions of important fossils
for sale.  A portion of the profits from the sale of reproductions would
return to the institution.  Or in exchange for doing fossil preparation, a
fossil seller could have exclusive rights for duplication for the retail
(not institutional) market.  This would relieve the current backlog of
unprepped specimens, making them available for study, introduce replicates
into the market and not the real thing, and help make the fossil sellers
more dependent on cooperation with the scientific community.

Institutions should develop strong ties with communities in close
geographical proximity to field research areas.  Local economies in the
Western states often benefit greatly when there is a summer-long presence of
fossil hunters in the area.  For example, though not on Federal land, the
Stonerose Interpretive Center in Republic, WA draws nearly 10,000 visitors a
year, to an area of depressed economy.  Because the SIC is local, governed
by a Board of Directors with local ties, it can best measure the benefits of
its programs to the communities while preserving the interests of science.
Similar approaches could be taken in other communities.  By involving the
people, they will take ownership and protect the resource. 

3)Land Access
Federal lands should be accessible to all.  Surface fossil collecting should
be unlimited, relying on education to bring significant specimens to
institutional scrutiny.  Anything beyond tool-less surface collecting should
require approval and permit, whether for intitutions, individuals or businesses.

Severe penalties (along the order of those proscribed by current regulation
of antiquities) should apply to unpermitted, non-surface collecting.

4)Equal rights for all fossils
I dispute the claims that vertebrate fossils are somehow more intrinsically
valuable than other fossils.  Granted a skeleton of a 10 ton dinosaur is
more dramatic than a beautifully preserved Glossopteris leaf, the leaf may
tell more about the paleoenvironment than the dinosaur.  And a quick
thumbing through of Shimer&Shrock's Index Fossils indicates the value of
inverts vs verts for stratigraphic correlation.

I consider my involvement in paleontology to have been positively improved
by association with professionals and see that as the cornerstone to any
legislation on fossil collection.  I have learned to appreciate some of the
subtleties of fossil identification and taphonomic significance with their
help and can apply that in the field in terms of greater discrimination of
importance.  I am committed to improving the role that the Northwest
Paleontological Association and the Burke Museum have in fostering
responsible collecting and scientific examination.  And I am confident that
I am not alone in the ideas expressed above.