Vague Laws: A Threat to Scientific Gains Made In Paleontology

Background Information

Fossils provide very important scientific and educational information about the history of the earth. However, in the recent years they have been converted into commercial items. Private prospectors, some which possess very little knowledge or even none about paleontology have ventured into the US fossil rich, vast western plains and are now plundering valuable fossils which otherwise would have been used for the benefit of the nation through scientific and educational purposes.

The commercialization of fossil excavation and its recent popularity can partly be pointed to the realistic reincarnation of dinosaurs as was depicted in the film Jurassic Parks and chiefly to the increasing demand for fossils in many parts of the world whereby they are now available in stores, auctions and other easily accessible sites. [Lundgren (1998)] The case of Alan and VanArsdale is an example, that people can during their free time or during vacations wander into the badlands of the western US and carry out fossil digging. [Alan & Van Arsdale (2003)]

Currently there is no comprehensive federal legislation or even a single federal policy that truly govern the management and protection of fossils that lies in the US federal public lands. [Alan & Van Arsdale (2003)] The few legislations which exist are either outdated (i.e., they lack the provisions to tackle commercial prospecting of fossils) or are not in agreement with one another (i.e., they greatly differ from agency to agency or place to place). For instance, the current legislations provide that, fossils that are excavated with permission from privately owned land may be owned and sold (the reason for increase in ‘legitimate’ commercial excavation of fossils from individual land owners). [Applegate & Dragonetti (1999)]

However, there exists a series of regulations in regards to prospecting for fossils in federal public land that may include Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands, national forest and grasslands, and state-owned or national parks, or even the jurisdictional lands. The current US Forest Service and BLM regulations allow the free collections of invertebrate fossils and petrified wood for both recreational and scientific purposes. Interestingly, the collection of vertebrates is restricted. Generally, the current law has been selective in terms of penalties on violators and therefore it has many loopholes for the ‘legitimate’ excavation of fossils. [John Day Fossil Beds, (2008)]

Summary of the Proposed Legislation

The proposed legislation seeks to seal all the loopholes that the commercial fossil prospectors have been using to rob the US of her rich fossils wealth. The subsection 6304(a) of the legislation gives the secretary immense power to issue permits for the collection of any paleontological resources in federal lands. To clarify this, Subsection 6304(b), provides that, these permits will only be available for persons who are deemed by the secretary to; possess vital knowledge and skills about paleontology;

if the permitted activity will seek to further paleontological knowledge or public education; if the permitted activity is consistent with any management procedures applicable to the federal land in question, and; that the proposed methods of collection will not in anyway threaten the natural or cultural resources. This means that no paleontological resources will be collected in federal lands without the issuance of a permit unless only in extreme cases such as casual collection, though in such cases the casual collectors will be expected to adhere to the laws governing the management of those federal lands and the subsection 6304 (a)

Section 6306 (a) (1) (2) (3), bars persons from attempting or excavating, removing, damaging, defacing, exchanging, transporting, exporting, receiving, selling, or purchasing any paleontological resources located in federal lands if the person knew or ought to have known such substance to have been removed from a federal land in violation of any provision, rule, ordinance, law, regulation, or permit in effect under federal law including subtitle.

Further subsection 6306 (b) bars persons from making or submitting false records, account, or label for, or any false identification of, any paleontological resources excavated from federal land. In the event of violation, procurement, soliciting, or employment of another person to violate any of the subsection (a) and (b), and upon conviction of the violations, fines and imprisonment of not more than five years, or both shall be imposed on a convict in accordance with the title 18, of the United States Code. However, if the sum of the commercial and paleontological value of the paleontological resources involved will not be in excess of $500, then one shall be fined as provided by title 18, United States Code, or imprisoned for two years, or both. [Subsection 6306 (c)]

            Subsection 6306 (d) provides that, if one will be liable for a second or subsequent violation, then the amount of fine as indicated in subsection(c) may be doubled. Nevertheless, subsection 6306 (e) provides that the legislation will not be applicable in paleontological resources which were in lawful possession of any person prior to the date of enactment of this legislation. [Collection of Paleontological Resources, Legislation, (2009)]


Private commercial fossil excavators have capitalized on the weak and outdated fossil management, collection and storage laws in the US, and as a result valuable fossils are now living the US for overseas markets. These commercial excavators are not only robbing the federal government valuable properties but are also ruining important evidence which comes with the excavation of fossils. The reasons are obvious, that, commercial prospectors are only bent on collecting as many fossils as they can and not mindful of preserving important analytical evidence.

If this scenario will be allowed to go on for a long time, then fossils will cease to carry with them the scientific and educational essence they usually have been carrying: they will just be scientifically and educationally meaningless objects, as the stories that underlies there existence and discovery will not be revealed. Important information concerning fossils such as, how the animals died, approximate time they died, what they ate, what kind of environment they lived in, and what was their social behavior, is usually very crucial on learning more about the fossils and about the ancient life. This information can only be got through the skills of careful excavation, studying, and analysis of the rocks in which these fossils are found, skills that only trained personnel can possess.

This calls for a new legislation that will restrict the persons excavating our rich western fossil lands; my opinion is that only trained personnel (paleontologists) should be given the mandate to access, manage, collect, study, analyze, and preserve fossils. Again, I strongly hold the feelings that, the proposed legislation, particularly subsection 6304 (a)(b) will restrict persons prospecting fossils through the selective issuance of permits to only those who are deemed to be qualified and knowledgeable.

It has been observed that recently there have been many legal suits between commercial prospectors or even renowned paleontologists and local authorities owning tracts of land in the western US plains. This is as a result of lack of clear boundaries between individually owned land and the local authorities-owned land. Many are times when prospectors enter into lease agreements with individual land owners to excavate fossils in their lands only to discover when they are in the middle of their excavations that the lands really belongs to the local authorities and not the individual owners, and therefore any fossils excavated from the lands are not to be privately owned let alone to be sold.

Therefore, it is highly recommended that a new legislation that seeks to settle this issue should be enacted. Looking at the proposed legislation, I feel convinced that, if it will be signed into law then it will serve to solve these disputes, through the strict measures it imposes on issuance of excavation permits on federal lands.

Under the current public laws such as the Federal land Management Policy Act of 1976; the mandate to protect public resources including scientifically valuable resources such as paleontological resources rests with the Federal land management agencies. However, as it stands, there is virtually no unified federal policy that governs these fossils as managed by the respective federal agencies. This has definitely, contributed to the commercialization of fossil excavation and hence lack of fossils and loss of valuable scientific evidence.

[Lundgren (1998)] It is therefore recommended that a more unified federal policy or legislation will work towards correcting this problem before it becomes chronic. The legislation should access the need for standards that would maximize the availability of fossils for scientific study. Again, the new legislations should have in its list of priories, measures for improving the current methods for storing and preserving fossils collected from public lands.

My opinions are that, the proposed new legislations fully caters for a unified federal policy that will discourage the selective justice that the current law encourages, that will seek to make fossils available for scientific and educational purposes, and that will put storage and preservation measures in place for the fossils collected in public lands. [Learman & Scott (2003)]

The current rate at which fossils have been excavated beats logic, especially having in mind the invaluable importance of fossils in regards to scientific and academic enhancements. Fossils, no matter what amount of money they will be sold at the cash value will never beat the scientific and academic value it has on the Americans in general. A fossil that is carefully excavated and analyzed can serve great scientific and academic purpose to the American citizens especially in institutes of higher learning.

There is a need to end the free-for-all commercial fossil excavation scenario that has been witnessed of late. Fossils should only be extracted for scientific and academic enhancement purposes only, unless in extreme cases. My opinion is that the signing of the new legislation will definitely bring to an end the commercial fossil extraction. This is confirmed by the new legislations subsection 6304(a).

Fossils found in public lands are public property, simply because public lands are serviced using public tax money. It follows that any benefits gained from such lands should not benefit few individuals but the whole American population. Fossil management, excavation, and storage of fossils process should be seen to benefits the main stakeholders who in this context are the American citizens, the paleontologists, and the federal government.

My opinions are that, the proposed new legislation pays great emphasis to the interests of the three stakeholders: the American citizens will equally benefit as more scientific evidence will now be easily gathered, they will also enjoy the proceeds of money raised through fines paid by defaulters of the new legislation; the paleontologists on the other hand will no longer be faced with the competition for fossils from the commercial prospectors, and; the federal government will no longer lose the wealth it has been losing recently due to export of fossils.


Alan & Van Arsdale, D. (2003), Fossil Nonsense: United States V. Alan VanArsdale et al., available online at;, accessed on April 15, 2009

The article describes a case civil suit that was filed by the United States against Alan and VanArsdale about collection of micro-fossils which were later donated to a museum. Its ideas about how vague the current statutes are in the enforcement of fossil protections policies were very useful in the preparation of this paper.

Applegate, D. & Dragonetti, J. (1999), “Fossils and Public Lands Update (6-28-00)” American Geological Institute (AGI) Government Affairs and Allison Alcott, AGI/AAPG Intern, available online at;

(, accessed on April 15, 2009:

This article retrieved from the American Geological Institute (AGI) Government Affairs Program website was very useful to the preparation of this paper as it gave me an insight into the current legal provisions that protects fossils and what needs to be done.

John Day Fossil Beds, (2008), Fossil Collecting on NPS and BLM Lands Permit, available online at;, accessed on April 15, 2009:

The selection of this article was irresistible as it offers a clear breakdown of the permits conditions to permits and the protection of resources measures that have been put in place for the prospecting of fossils in NPS and BLM lands.

Learman, D.R., & Scott, E. (2003), Summary Hearings on Fossils (6-27-03) American Geological Institute (AGI) Government Affairs Program, Summer 2003 AGI/AIPG Interns, available online at; (, accessed on April 15, 2009:

This article retrieved from American Geological Institute (AGI) Government Affairs Program website was very useful to my paper as it provided comments and recommendations made by various stakeholders who participated in the drafting of the proposed new legislations.

Lundgren, G. (1998). “Protecting federal fossils from extinction,” Boston College Environmental Affairs law Review, available online at;

( ), accessed on April 15, 2009:

This journal article was retrieved from the Boston College Environmental Affairs law Review via the online address given above.  I found the article very useful to my paper as it gives a complete literature about my paper topic.

Collection of Paleontological Resources Legislation, available at; http://www.H.R._146._Section._6304._Collection_of_Paleontological_Resources, accessed on April 15, 2009:

This site was selected because it contains a complete breakdown of the proposed new legislation. The preparation of the paper could not have been a hard endeavor if the article was not used.