Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Expanding the conversation on casual collecting on Federal lands

This post is in response to a thoughtful comment left by an invertebrate paleontologist by the name of Phil on my previous post regarding The Paleontological Society's reaction to proposed USFS policy for managing paleontological resources. Read his comment first.

I do appreciate that there is a difference in the scale or scope of some vert vs. non-vert collecting. I have dug several-meter wide quarries and excavated sauropod dinosaurs, disrupting an enormous amount of overburden in the process. I've also certainly spent my share of hours crawling across outcrop collecting tiny nodules hoping for primate teeth. In that case the results of two weeks of prospecting fit into a quart sized baggie. That the fossils were wee, or that my actions were relatively non-invasive does not constitute casual collecting. The method of collection or quantity collected is not the point, and neither is your attitude while collecting. The law speaks to the use of the material. Research collecting vs. hobbyist collecting is the distinction to make, "casual" does not mean "not that difficult."

To reiterate, the land agencies are tasked with resource management, they must balance needs for science, conservation, recreation, and commercialization. Certainly the type of excavation required for megafauna has more potential to impact natural resources and make land managers nervous. However, compliance with laws like NEPA and ARPA is only part of the reason that Federal agencies want to know what researchers are up to in the field- they learn more about the resources in their care through the processes of permitting, annual reporting, and subsequent publication. Also, the agencies have to report to Congress letting them know what kind of job their staff are doing managing that land. They can additionally help coordinate or facilitate research projects, when they know they are going on.

One vertebrate paleontologist collecting and reporting under a research permit will be interacting with agency land managers, communicating about their findings, receiving in some cases material help in the form of volunteers, vehicular support, or funding, and in the process is educating the government employees about the scientific value of their study area. Joint press releases are even released sometimes, highlighting the partnership. One hundred invertebrate paleontologists collecting under "casual use" provisions will receive none of this attention, so maybe it is no wonder that non-vert paleo is underfunded/recognized.

The final and most important point is this- the current USFS proposal is restating past regulations in compliance with the new PRPA law. There is nothing new about the content. I acknowledge that Phil was commenting from his perspective only, but if invertebrate paleontologists feel like regulations about research permitting on public lands is some fresh new hell, then there is certainly more misinformation circulating than I'd feared. In the words of the U.S. Forest Service:
"Failure to obtain a special use permit for research violates Forest Service Policy and Federal environmental regulations, and may jeopardize completion of the research."

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Paleontological Society on casual collecting

Perhaps we should take up a collection to buy The Paleontological Society a dictionary. They seem to be very confused. Look, I’m never surprised by the inability of scientists to critically evaluate data on issues that hit close to home. We’re human, after all. But I’d hope that an international scientific association would take the time to do some basic homework before sending out a message to its membership recommending comments on draft Federal policies. 

Let me back up. 

There has been a great deal of debate in recent days over proposed policy for paleontological research on US Forest Service land, most of it measured and well thought out  (e.g. here, here, here). By contrast, I’m going to pick on one group here, setting aside measured commentary. The Paleontological Society calls out several sections of the policy that “could have significant implications for research practices.” One of those is centered on a policy requiring that "common invertebrate and plant paleontological resources collected for research purposes . . . would need to be authorized under a permit in accordance with Sec. 291-13 through 291.20." The Paleontological Society says “This would seem to place a higher burden on professional paleontologists… than on casual collectors of fossils…” 

Well, no shit. I’ll also set aside the snark from the intro regarding donations of dictionaries, and I won’t bother pointing out that collection for research is by definition NOT casual collecting and violates both Federal regulations and scientific standards (see the law: Subtitle D, Sec 6301(1), and an example of how it would be implemented in policy: 291.11 (c)). Instead, I’ll speak to those standards. It would seem to me that scientists, through a system of research ethics, inherently bear a higher burden of documentation and rigor than a casual collector or hobbyist. Isn’t that what makes the whole show science to begin with? The USFS already has policy in place regarding research permits; this FAQ does a great job of explaining many of the reasons that such policies exist. To sum it up though, Federal agencies bear the responsibility of resource management, and have to balance numerous competing needs as custodians. Additionally, they know quite a bit about the resources under their control, and are interested in learning more through reciprocal exchanges of information with content specialists. Permits are one of the best mechanisms for agencies to understand how their resources are being used and studied, as well as tools to track the location of the specimens THAT THEY OWN. This information is necessary for the agencies to manage their resources properly. Unwillingness to ask permission from the custodians of the land to collect specimens and complete reports on the work done on that land and with the resources is both selfish and unethical. If a scientist can't plan their work in way that complies with law and ethics, and if they can't communicate that work to stakeholders, they probably aren't doing very good science to begin with. 
As an example, let's randomly select an organization responsible for promoting the science of paleontology, say, The Paleontological Society, and examine their core documents. Turns out, the first two tenets in their Code of Fossil Collecting state: 

"The Society therefore adopts the following practices associated with the collection and curation of fossils:
1. Prior notification will be made and permission or appropriate permits will be secured from landowners or managers of private or public lands where fossils are to be collected.
2. All collections will be in compliance with federal, tribal in the case of Native American lands, state, and municipal laws and regulations applied to fossil collecting."

I support the Society’s instruction to members that “comments on both draft regulations should be constructed carefully, keeping in mind that the agencies are required to prepare these regulations in conformance with their mandates for resource protection and in compliance with the wording of the PRPA law.*” I would also suggest that they read the Society’s own policies, and maybe their notes from junior high regarding the nature of the scientific method.  

* Emphasis mine

Friday, July 12, 2013

Job listing- The Natural History Museum of Utah

Posted on behalf of Randy Irmis-

The Natural History Museum of Utah is currently searching for the position of fossil preparator/lab manager.  This is a full-time permanent position with full benefits.  The search closes on July 26, and more details can be found here: https://utah.peopleadmin.com/postings/24731