By Bryce Koester
(Editor’s Note: As a student member of the Paleontological Society, Ms. Koester was the first person to serve as a Paleontological Society/American Geological Institute Summer Policy Intern in Washington, D.C. during the summer of 2018.)
In 1922, the Fossil Cycad National Monument was established in South Dakota under the Antiquities Act as a unit of the National Park Service (NPS). The 320-acre site, bought and donated by paleobotanist George R. Wieland, was home to one of the world’s greatest concentrations of cycadeoids, a major group of Triassic seed plants known as Bennettitales (Santucci and Ghist 2014).
Cycadeoids within the boundaries of this monument were fossilized with silica replacement at an almost cellular level, preserving branching and reproductive structures in a way that had not been documented in fossil cycadeoids at any other locality. These one-of-a-kind fossils originally promised to shed light on the origins of flowering plants, as Bennettitales were once proposed as the ancestors of angiosperms (Arber and Parkin 1907, Santucci and Ghist 2014).
Amateur collectors and paleobotanists alike took an interest in the site dating back to the 1890s after the cycadeoids were discovered at the locality. From then to at least the 1930s, visitors removed the fossils in droves, including Wieland himself, who likely removed more than a thousand specimens before giving the land to the NPS. By 1929, an NPS report on the monument stated that all cycadeoid specimen previously exposed had been removed, and there was “nothing left… of interest to visitors.” Eventually, in 1957, the national monument was deauthorized and the land was turned over to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). These days, the now-forgotten, decommissioned Fossil Cycad National Monument area mainly features a highway and some grazing cattle.
As these unique cycadeoid fossils demonstrate, paleontological resources are non-renewable. Once a species becomes extinct, each individual specimen of that species in the paleontological record becomes part of a limited heritage of scientific, educational, and cultural value. Fossils also hold value for people on an individual level, but the practically universal love of fossils by people around the world has a price. This fascination has fed a large commercial market, parts of which threaten the fossil record as a communal and scientific resource. Not all commercial fossil sales are destructive, but illegal collecting and the commodification of one-of-a-kind specimen put the paleontological record at risk. When rare fossils are privately owned, they are often lost as a scientific and public resource.
The conflict between fossils as a public good and a private collector’s prize has repeatedly gained attention in academic circles and mainstream media since the deauthorization of Fossil Cycad National Monument. Both legally-obtained fossils from private lands and illegally-obtained fossils from public and private lands supply the market demand for fossils. Perhaps most recently, a specimen representing a potentially new species of Allosaurus was sold at auction this year in France for $2.3 million dollars. In 1997, the now-famous Tyrannosaurus rex fossil named “Sue” was sold at auction to the highest bidder for $8.4 million after being found on private property in 1990. Fortunately, the buyer was the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago; with a different buyer, one of the largest, oldest, and most complete T. rex fossils may have been lost to science and to the public. Both of these dinosaurs were found on private property.
High-profile sales of fossils found on private lands are undeniably legal, yet dismaying from a scientific standpoint. All too often, fossils are stolen for commercial sale or personal possession. In 2017, Death Valley National Park made the news after fossilized tracks were excavated and stolen. A similar case occurred on private land outside in Bosque County, Texas, where a fossilized dinosaur footprint – once a source of pride for one Texas ranching family for six generations – was stolen and destroyed.
As these examples demonstrate, paleontological-resource conflicts that spark public interest and media coverage are often centered on vertebrate remains or traces, particularly those of dinosaurs. However, the loss of the Fossil Cycad National Monument is a testament to the fact that these risks to the scientific community and national heritage are not limited to dinosaur or vertebrate fossils. As exemplified by the recent Allosaurus auction, fossils are often advertised as belonging to undiscovered species in the commercial market. Whether or not these claims are true, this marketing strategy demonstrates that rare fossil specimens are often more desirable and commercially lucrative. Not all commercially valuable specimens hold equal or proportionate value due to other contributing factors, such as aesthetic beauty. But, all other factors being equal, vertebrate, invertebrate, and plant fossils across the board may be more at risk of being lost to scientific and public access when they are unique, the very characteristic that makes them scientifically invaluable.
Theft and vandalism, resulting from both casual and organized collecting, has been increasingly documented on federal lands (Santucci et al. 2009). Another NPS report revealed that a minimum of 721 fossil crimes occurred on National Park lands from 1997 to 1998 (Santucci et al., 2018). This number is likely only a small fraction of the total number of thefts, as under-reporting of paleontological resource incidents in national parks likely occurs to this day (Santucci et al., 2018). Going forward, how can we protect valuable paleontological resources throughout the United States – on both private and public lands – when we struggle to protect our paleontological resources on federal lands, where the U.S. has the most control?
In some countries, such as Canada, China, and Australia, the government protects and controls paleontological resources on all their lands, including those on private property. This approach is unlikely to gain significant traction in the United States, where the culture and political heritage of personal autonomy prioritizes private land rights over community educational and cultural resources. Thus, regulation of fossils on U.S. private land is typically considered to be out of the question as a practical and enforceable regulation.
Nevertheless, federal legislation proposing to create cohesive and universal protections of fossils on federal lands has been in the works since 1979. The Archaeological Resources Preservation Act (ARPA) of 1979—a bill that prevents archaeological resource exploitation on federal and Indian lands—originally included paleontological resource protections. However, the two resources were separated to avoid contributing to the common confusion between paleontology and archaeology. ARPA was passed, while a separate bill addressing paleontological resources remained in progress. In 2009—thirty years later—the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act (PRPA) was signed into law as a part of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 (H.R. 146).
PRPA prohibits all fossil collection on federal lands without a permit except for the casual collecting of common invertebrate and plant fossils. Casual collecting under PRPA means the collecting of a reasonable amount for personal, non-commercial use resulting in negligible disturbance of Earth’s surface. The Act conveys ownership of all fossils collected to the federal government, and requires specimens to be stored for future study in repositories approved by an authorized officer. In 2015, the Forest Service (USFS) established its final rules for the act. Final rules clarify how regulations outlined in legislation will be implemented by individual federal agencies. After proposing its own rule in 2016 [81 FR 88173], the Department of the Interior (DOI) has not yet responded to public comments and published its finalized rule, but it may release more information on the finalized rule soon.
While generally supported by vertebrate paleontologists, some paleobotanists and invertebrate paleontologists take issue with some provisions of the Act. Principally, criticism is directed towards the lack of distinction between vertebrate and non-vertebrate fossils in permit requirements and the prohibition against disclosing localities without federal permission. This means that scientists or fossil repositories will not be able to release specific locality data such as GPS coordinates from work conducted on federal lands without first being approved by the relevant land management agency. This prohibition is likely to protect potentially fragile or vulnerable ecosystems and resources.
However, not disclosing localities in research potentially obstructs the verification and reproduction of results and thus conflicts with principles of the scientific method. The text of the Act itself, the final rule submitted by USFS, and the proposed rule for DOI lands allow for locality information to be released upon approval by an authorized official if doing so furthers scientific inquiry and does not harm the resource. In this case, an authorized official would signify the director of the relevant bureau or employees with the delegated authority under PRPA. However, it is understandably concerning to scientists that full disclosure of data is a regulated allowance rather than the standard practice of greater disclosure in scientific research.
Some invertebrate professional paleontologists and paleobotanists have also voiced the opinion that—unlike vertebrate fossils—invertebrate and plant fossil specimen are more abundant and not as commercially popular, and therefore less at risk of theft and complete removal. Consequently, some scientists view the permitting process as an unnecessary hoop through which invertebrate and plant fossil research must jump—a hoop that amateur collectors do not have to face when it comes to small takes of common invertebrate and plant fossils.
Regardless of stances on the current implementation of PRPA, questions remain that lie outside of federal land fossil policy. Unique specimens located on private lands are still at risk from commodification and/or theft without the additional regulatory support the Act affords to federal lands.
Strengthening import and export laws and enforcement specifically directed at paleontological resources may provide one possible way to protect fossils regardless of whether they were found on public or private land. However, working under budget constraints, U.S. Customs and Border Control must balance a wide range of pressing issues. Consequently, illegally-obtained items at mineral and fossil shows often go unchecked. Working with similarly limited resources and funding, federal and state governments often prioritize development over preservation, particularly irreplaceable resources like fossils, which present indirect contributions to public welfare.
Due to the reality of limited resources, practicable regulation and enforcement that can be effectively implemented is needed. Fortunately, prosecuting paleontological resource theft can be facilitated with modern technology. For example, rare-earth element analysis has demonstrated the ability to pinpoint the origin of a fossil among various locations with 96.7% accuracy, which looks promising as a prosecutorial tool (Dalton 2009). Furthermore, fossils with unique features on accessible public lands are sometimes photographed in enough detail by the public such that they can be identified as illegally obtained if they later appear in the fossil market. These techniques may mean that enforcing regulations will be more fully realized even with budgetary constraints.
As technology develops and improves the outlook of fossil theft investigations and prosecution, paleontological education promises to advance the future of fossil preservation and protection. Programs such as the NPS Junior Paleontologist program, which has graduated 100,000 Junior Paleontologists in the last eight years, and events like Earth Science Week’s National Fossil Day are capable of harnessing children’s universal love of fossils to teach the next generation about the importance of fossils as a public resource.
If programs like these are successful, the next generation of fossil enthusiasts, and the community at large, will likely support stewardship over ownership of unique paleontological resources. Public education and awareness may be the key to create the momentum necessary to protect one-of-a-kind cultural and scientific resources, and to inspire landowners to be proud caretakers of not only their land, but also of millions of years of irreplaceable and non-renewable paleontological heritage.
Arber, E. N., and Parkin, J. (1907). On the origin of angiosperms. Journal of the Linnean Society of London, Botany, 38(263), 29-80.
Dalton, R. (2009) Elements reveal fossils’ origins. Nature, 459, 307.
Santucci, V.L., Kenworthy, J.P., and Mims, A.L. (2009). Monitoring in situ paleontological resources. In Young, R., and Norby, L., (editors), Geological Monitoring. Boulder, Colorado, Geological Society of America, 189–204.
Santucci, V. L., and Ghist, J. M. (2014). Fossil Cycad National Monument: A history from discovery to deauthorization. In Proceedings of the 10th Conference on Fossil Resources. Dakoterra, 6, 82-93.
Santucci, V.L., J.S. Tweet, and T. Connors (2018). The Paleontology Synthesis Project and Establishing a Framework for Managing National Park Service Paleontological Resource Archives and Data. In Lucas, S.G. and Sullivan, R.M. (editors), 2018, Fossil Record 6. New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science Bulletin, 79, 596-597.