Dem bones are your bones

  Dear HCN,

The story "Who owns these bones?" (HCN, 3/4/96) addresses a timely and important issue prompted by recent introduction in Congress of the "Fossil Preservation Act" by Reps. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., and Joe Skeen, R-N.M. The proposed legislation requires clarification.

Your article states that, under the new law, "commercial and amateur collectors would be compelled to hand over all scientifically unique fossils to a federal land-management agency." The bill requires only that scientifically unique specimens that are excavated from an area of greater than two square meters will be relinquished. The bill leaves unprotected all fossils that can be picked up from the surface or that can be excavated from an area of less than two square meters. Truth is, this includes the overwhelming majority of fossils; only a very, very few require excavation from greater than two square meters.

The bill would allow anyone, no matter what their training, to collect any fossil that is not huge and unique - no matter what its educational and scientific value - to own that fossil, and to sell it. I believe that's just plain wrong; fossils collected from federal lands, and the information that can be gleaned from them, belong to everyone.

The "Fossil Preservation Act" would result in pillaging of fossil resources in the Western states on an unprecedented scale, turning important specimens into art objects and curios and, in the process, destroying their educational and scientific value. The people who do care about the West (and having been raised in the West I count myself as one of them) should not allow the fossil heritage that lies within their rocks to be sold to the highest bidder.

The issue of training surfaces repeatedly in your article. It is the source of charges by commercial fossil dealers in several quotations that academic paleontologists are elitists (and worse). But why is training important? The rationale for having trained paleontologists doing paleontological work is no different than for any trade, whether it be a plumber, electrician, police officer, or physician.

From careful excavations and analyses, paleontologists have been able to infer how fast extinct creatures could move, what they ate, how they died, what kind of environment they lived in, aspects of social behavior, and so on. It is crucially important to know how the fossil was oriented in the rock, at what level it occurred, what other fossils were associated with it, and so on. Without the collection of these kinds of data, fossils become scientifically and educationally meaningless. Each piece of information collected is like a page in a book; without the pages, there is no story.

The charges of elitism also miss the mark when one considers what academic paleontologists do for a living: They are researchers and educators and, as such, their jobs are to gain and distribute knowledge about fossils. I do not know of a single academic paleontologist who does not spend considerable amounts of time sharing the knowledge he or she has gained, not just with college students and colleagues, but with local community groups, rockhound groups and school children. Many colleagues also encourage participation of non-scientists in excavations. Paleontologists at museums like the Denver Museum of Natural History have developed outstanding training programs for amateurs.

The organization that I represent, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, has a strong outreach program to amateur paleontologists and counts many of them among its members. If this constitutes elitism, then we are guilty as charged.

David Krause

Stony Brook, New York

The writer is president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.

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