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."


Phil said...

I totally agree with most of this sentiment. However, I think you're incorrect that the existing rules apply to all fossils. I'm checking with a friend who's collected in National Parks for confirmation (stay tuned...). But according to the existing law

A USDA website notes that current regulation CFR 36 261.9(i) only requires a permit for collection of vertebrates (and some petrified wood). The new proposed regulations expressly note that "Paragraph 261.9(i) would be removed because it is inconsistent with 16 U.S.C. 470aaa-5 of the Act"

So my understanding is that the proposed regulations would be the first time that these regulations would apply to invertebrate fossils.

Given this, many of us are undergoing major learning curves. And given the lack of funds and resources (and public interest) we often work under, the regulations might cause many of us to stop working in federal lands.

(Note I'm not disagreeing with the general motivation of the regulations, nor with your views. I largely support them. Fossils are inherently valuable as research objects, and deserving of protection. My concern is that the regulations are essentially applying vertebrate-standards to all fossils. It's akin to declaring that hog teeth should be regulated the same way as is ivory.)

Phil said...


I spoke to my friend who has collected on federal lands and gone through the permit process. He says that, yes, he has done research on invertebrates using an approved permit, and that, yes, much of the proposed regulations were already in effect, at least in the park he collected. So that was new to me, and a part of the learning curve I'm undergoing.

(Although after reading through several Park regulations, I note that some parks make distinctions between vertebrates and non-vertebrates, some don't, and that the special-use permit is MUCH simpler and less burdensome that the proposed permit process in the new regulations.)

But my colleague does point out that the proposed (and existing) rules have put a real damper on the research we can do. His two hardest issues were in finding an approved repository (and he works at one of the top-10 research universities in your state, and has longstanding connections to major national museums), and being able to work with thin sections, sediment residues, etc. (which many repositories refused to store permanently under the conditions required by the regulations).

In general, when it comes to large collections of invertebrate and sedimentological specimens that can be easily re-collected without disturbing the surface, it is very difficult to get institutional approval and support to carry out research on federal lands under the proposed rules.

iPreparator said...

This has nothing even to do with fossils- vertebrate or otherwise.
It is a question of research.

Anyone conducting research on USFS land needs a special use permit for research- even if they haven't collected a thing. A geologist measuring sections and not even collecting hand samples still needs a research permit. FS Special Uses authority (36 CFR 251) is the current system under which permitting is regulated, but PRPA changes that game slightly. The rules haven't changed, just where the authority comes from.

Casual collecting does not exist on NPS lands, and never has. They were established under a very different and much more strict standard.

I couldn't care less whether the fossils are vertebrate, plant, insect, or coprolite, if they are being studied and published on, they are scientific research specimens. We need to be applying museum standards to our specimens, or we're not doing science.

Phil said...

I agree about the need to safeguard specimens used in research. But what about the situation when a professional (well published) paleontologist can not identify a local, approved repository that will agree to follow the federal guidelines for specimen care? Many museums and paleontologists just do not have the funding available to meet the standards in the regulations. (And requesting funds from NSF is a losing battle given the ~10% funding rate in recent years.)

Phil said...

Just curious, do you know how many institutions in Texas currently are approved as such repositories? Is UT Austin?

If not, do the regulations allow you to store the specimens at UT until you are completed with the research? Or do you need to store them first, and then conduct research at the repository or after first borrowing them? (I'm still trying to understand what the regulations require.)

Phil said...

I've been doing some more research, and want to thank you for spurring me to do it. It's been very informative, and, I think, addresses your original concerns with the Paleontological Society statement.

You are correct that the National Park Service, FWS, and BOR have never made a distinction between vertebrate and invertebrate collecting, and they have always required permits for scientific collection. In contrast, the BLM has only required permits for vertebrates.

(Good historical and comparative contexts can be found at:

I also looked over the comments by the SVP and others that helped shape the existing policies, at:

Overall, I think the potential misunderstanding you drew attention to on your earlier blog was that there has been the perception (certainly by me, and also shared among many of my professional colleagues, many with years of experience in leadership roles in the Paleontological Society) that the basic federal collection regulations were essentially those of the BLM, in which invertebrates and plants were treated differently.

Support for this misunderstanding can be seen best, I think, in that the SVP (a vertebrate-centric society) has been involved in these issues for a very long time. But that the PS (more broadly focused on all fossils) has never participated (unsure whether not invited or declined to attend) in such discussions (such as the formative 1999 public meeting that included speakers from 11 organizations (primarily vertebrate-centered), but did not include the PS.

I'm going to pass along this context to the leadership of the PS in case they are not aware of it.

This has certainly been a valuable learning experience, and I hope it can draw more attention to the disparities in how vertebrate and non-vertebrate paleontological research have been reflected (or at least their perception) in the ongoing debate on federal policies.

By the way, I'd still love to see a list of federally approved repositories. I can't find that information anywhere, and I think it has an important role on how practical the regulations could be.