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Re: Press Release from BHIGR
I read with concern the press release posted by George Winters which he
received from Marion Zenker. I have derived great satisfaction and learned a
lot about paleontology and how the scientific method works through my
avocation as an amateur paleontologist. By becoming involved in the Society of
Vertebrate Paleontology I have also had the pleasure of witnessing firsthand
the mutual respect and friendship that exists between professional and amateur
paleontologists. Amateur paleontologists do not want to just collect fossils.
We want to understand them.
It has also become clear to me that vertebrate fossils on federal public lands
are a valuable public resource that should be managed for the maximum benefit
of the public.
I am troubled when erroneous information is used as part of an attempt to
change how a public resource is managed. Surely Zenker should know that only a
small percentage of the "half-billion acres of land owned by the Federal
Government" meets the necessary conditions for preserving fossils.
While this misinformation is glaring, I am even more troubled by how this
press release demonstrates a failure to understand the true value of
vertebrate fossils. The value of a fossil is not the mere physical specimen,
it is the specimen, AND the information it tells us about past life. Without
proper contextual data we know little about an animal other than the fact that
it lived, died, and its bones were preserved. With contextual data, we can
begin to understand how the animal lived. When specimens are collected with
contextual data, and are curated and catalogued in a public repository,
researchers can make comparisons with other specimens and understand
evolutionary relationships. (And write up their conclusions so that interested
professionals and laypeople can read them, and use these conclusions to teach
our children about how science works.) As our understanding of past life
changes and becomes more complete, earlier conclusions must be re-visited, and
fresh eyes must look upon previously analyzed specimens. This re-examination
cannot take place with specimens that have disappeared into private
In sum, Zenker's statement that many fossils on federal public lands need to
be found and collected is incomplete. If fossils on public lands are merely
collected, the public is deprived of the informational value of these fossils.
Rather, what is needed is that these fossils be collected with contextual
data, and curated and catalogued in a public institution. When this is done,
the public will derive the maximum value from the precious resource it owns.
It may take a bit longer to do the job right, but I'm confident future
generations will appreciate a commitment to proper management of this valuable
public resource and will help in doing their part.
Ted J. Vlamis