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Re: DINOSAUR digest 915
Cory Gross of the Alberta Paleontology Society recently wrote:
" In alberta, ALL fossils collected belong to the government of
Crown...Individual collectors are only the stewards of the finds, and
these finds can be repossessed by the goernment whenever they feel like
it...Taking fossils out of the province is also banned. And...SURFACE
COLLECTING only...If the bone police catch you in the field with a
spade, then you're screwed."
"IMHO, this is a very good system..."
Like Jeff Polings, I question Cory's conclusion, but would go even
further. I think the law is horribly bad. I think it and any
legislation like it will have an oppressive and counterproductive
effect on paleontology for the following reasons:
Such a law severely curtails amateur collecting and reconnaisance.
This is not just bad for the many amateurs and students of paleontology
(such as myself) who enjoy the collection and study of fossils, but
will result in a sharp decrease in donated material and new finds.
Historicall most new site and taxa discoveries have been bade by
amateurs, who far outnumber professionals. Moreover, many are
interested in the scientific imnportance of fossils, and often bring
unusual or rare fossils to the attention of professionals, or donate
them outright. Professionals cannot fill the gap. There are not nearly
enough professionals to collect even a fraction of the fossils exposed
each year. Without active help from others, such laws will not protect
most fossils, but will guarantee that thousands which would have been
collected by nonprofessionals will just ROT on the ground. Yes, a
strict law may mean a few less fossils are "lost" to private
collections or improper collection, but MANY MORE would be lost to
erosion and noncollection if the amateurs were not actively collecting.
It is also easy to demonize commercial dealers, but even many of
them are interested in science, and for their own ego if not other
reasons, often bring important specimens to the attention of
scientists. They also are just as willing to sell the specimens to
museums as anyone else--often at a cost less than if the museum mounted
an expediation of its own, with no guarantee of even finding a
comparable specimen. Witness for example the immense contributions to
paleontology and numerous museum collections from the free-lance work
of the prolific Sternberg family in the late 1980's and early 1900's.
Of course some amateurs and commercial outfits do not always
document or prepare specimens as well as they should, but I can say the
same about some professionals. And many amateurs do a fine job at
documentation and prep--sometimes BETTER than many proessionals). And
at any rate, the imporant point is that many of the finds WOULD NEVER
HAVE BEEN MADE under more restrictive laws. Instead most would have
the lost to erosion and non-collection. I hope most professionals do
not consider that the better alternative.
And of course many specimens collected by nonprofessionals go
directly or eventually toward educational ends. Many are used by
schools and individual teachers, museum shops and ed departments.
Even those private collections initially sequested from view eventually
wind up in museums or colleges when the owners die.
The bottom line is that if amateur collecting is severely
restricted, the number of fossils contributed to science would
decrease dramatically. I do not have any figures (and wonder if anyone
does), but I would bet a month's salary that in Alberta the number of
specimen donations and new fossil discoveries went DOWN rather than UP
after the law was enacted.
I am going to take flak from some for saying this, but I think
those favoring Alberta like laws neeed to carefully examine their
reasons for doing so. Since I do not think a case can be made that it
will increase the number of finds (again, the opposite is more likely),
what is the reason? I think part of it may be just a desire to have
more control. Or perhaps there is the tempting thought (even a
subconscious one) that there may be more fossils when YOU personally go
collecting--even though there would be far fewer fossils collected and
discoveries made overall--in other words, individuals might gain, while
paleontology as a whole would probably suffer.
Third, an especially troubling aspect of the Alberta law is that it
appplies equally to common fossils as rare or imporant ones. Yes, I
think there should be some control or restrictions on the collection of
important and rare fossils. But when the same restrictions are applied
to common fossils, everyone looses. Again. many high schools, clubs,
colleges, small museums, etc. depend on the study and collection of
common fossils (especially invertebrates) for educational purposes.
Those that cannot collect all they need themselves benefit from being
able to buy common specimens from dealers. Both activities ultimately
promote interest and education in fossils, while having the fringe
benefit in often resulting in new discoveries.
Not even all vertebrates need to be tightly controlled. Some
vertebrates in some areas (such as White River turtle fragments) are so
common that they are of little or no use to most museums (or already
have or can easily get all they want), but are of great use and joy to
many amateurs, teachers, etc. Allowing their collection and even sale
does not hurt paleontology, but rather helps spur interest it it.
SVP's statement comdemning all fossil sales largely ignores these
considerations. But even if one could justify banning all commercial
collecting, and all non-professional vertebrate collecting, there would
still be no benefit and much harm in severely restricting the
collection of common invertebrates, as the Alberta law evidently does.
Last, if something similar to the Alberta law were enacted in the
U.S., especially for private land, it would fly directly in the face of
the constitutional priciple of private property. I for one get chills
to think of the US government telling a citizen that they can come and
consficate material on their land at will, without even compensating
them for it (as evidently the Alberta law allows). That is NOT the
American way, nor in the best interest of science. If private
individuals could not collect or control material on their own land, it
is not likely they would tell anyone about it. In other words,
probably NO ONE would have the fossils.
I am already very disappointed in the SD law recently passed, which
ostensibly "protects" fossil (including common invertebrates) on public
land there. But does it really? As I understand it, no longer can a
high school or college class easily go to a local public road cut and
collect some common bachiopods and clams. No loner can a fossil club
take a field trip to collect some trilobites for a display. It this
fossil protection? Is this fostering education in fossils or science
in general? Does this hurt or help paleontology?
Of course, some control of important fossil collection in merited.
But sweeping legislation that severely restricts amateur collection of
both common fossils, or which burdens professionals with excessive red
tape, is not. This is not just my opinion. A study by the National
Academy of Science concluded that:
"After much discussion and soul-searching, the Committee adopted
the following statement of principle...In general, the science of
paleontology is best served by unimpeded access to fossils and
fossil-bearing rocks in the field."
Committee on Guidelnines for Paleontological Collecting
National Research Council
National Academy Press, 1987
The report also stated...
>From a scientific standpoint, the role of the land manager should be to
facilitate exploration for, and collection of, paleontological
I think the Alberta law and to a lesser extent some of the bills
recently proposed in the US (like last year's Bauccus bill or the SD
law) fly in the face of these principles. The current ALAA bill (HR
2943) is less restrictive, while still controlling collection of
important fossils. Yet it is being fought tooth and nail by many
professionals. I myself have some reservations about it (because of
some ambiguities in the language and questions on the guidelines for
commercial collecting). But overall I think this bill (or none at all)
would be better (or less oppressive) for paleontology than highly
restrictive ones. Again, if the overall good of paleontology is the
main concern rather than one's own individual collecting prospects, I
think there is little question that the NAS recommendations should be
The major fallacy of those who believe they are "protecting" fossils
when they favor strict legislation is that the net result of such
legislation may be FEWER new FINDS due to the greatly reduced
collecting of nonprofessionals. It then becomes a question of whether
you are concerned more for your own interest (a fewmore fossils for
YOU) when you go into the field, or the interest of paleontology as a
whole, which historically has benefited greatly from amateur collecting
and even from controlled commercial collecting (witness the huge
controbutions of the Sternberg familiy, for example). Many of the
perceived evil commercial collectors focus on common fossils to supply
museum shops, schools, indivifdual teachers, etc. providing a
legitimate service professionals have neither the time nor inclination
to do. Moreover, many amateurs and ethical commercial dealers make
important speciems available for study or sale to professionals (they
want credit for important finds also), and often go a good job of prep
and doc. Sometimes they do not, but then not all professionals do
either, and the bottom line is that overall, paleontology greatly
benefits from largely unrestricted access to fossils. In my view
commercial collecting of rare and important fossils should be
controlled, but paleontology and education would be best served by
ENCOURAGING amateur and even commercial collection of common
invertebrates. This is not just my opinion; I think anyone interested