For paleontologists and fossil enthusiasts working in the United States, one week is left to submit comments on the Paleontological Resources Protection Act (PRPA), the set of U.S. laws that protects and preserve the nation’s paleontological resources. For those of you ready to send comments in now, follow the link here:
But, many of you may not have submitted comments yet; maybe you don’t know what is being changed or solicited, maybe you don’t understand the legal jargon, or maybe aren’t sure that the PRPA even applies to you. Let’s look back at some of the history of PRPA, what it does for fossils on federal lands, and how the proposed rules could affect and impact your research, and your collections.
The history of PRPA
The PRPA was signed into law in 2009, but its origins go back further than that. According to the Federal Register, the PRPA began as an investigation conducted in 1999 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Forest Service, and the Smithsonian, at the request of the Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, to determine the need for a set of universal standards regarding the collection, storage, and preservation of fossils and to maximize their use for scientific study. These agencies examined current methods being used by institutions for collection and preservation of fossil collections, and put forth comments and recommendations in their report, published in May 2000.
The report led to the creation of the PRPA, modeled after standards put forth by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, which was put in to law in 1979. The PRPA became law in March 2009, the next step in ensuring the preservation of paleontological resources, which, according to the PRPA, includes “any fossilized remains, traces, or imprints of organisms, preserved in or on the earth’s crust, that are of paleontological interest and provide information about the history of life on earth,” excluding materials or cultural items that would fit under the jurisdiction of “archaeology.”
The PRPA helps five federal agencies—the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), the National Park Service (NPS), and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS)—manage and protect fossil resources, by providing a set of guidelines for how fossils can legally be collected, who can legally collect them, where these fossils should go, and how to penalize those who break the law by collected fossils on federal lands illegally.
In 2013, the Forest Service enacted proposed rules that helped implement the PRPA on FS lands, and these rules were also open for comment before they became finalized in 2015. (For PLOS Paleo editor Andy Farke’s take on the USFS PRPA comment period, see this archived list from the PLOS Paleo Blog).
This comment period, which ends Monday, February 6, 2017, affects the other four bureaus (BLM, FWS, NPS, and Reclamation) and how they will manage paleontological resources on federal lands.
Recent comments on PRPA
I won’t go into a lot of the detail regarding the proposed rules, because it has been done quite well by other sources, which I will link below. I suggest you read these, as well as the document on the Federal Register, as it specifically lays out each proposed rule that will help these agencies manage, preserve, and ensure proper collection and storage of fossil resources deemed important for scientific study, research, and furthering knowledge.
What I want to do here is summarize some of the comments that were brought up during a recent webinar on the PRPA, presented by Scott Foss and hosted by iDigBio (the entire session has been archived here), because they illustrate where many of the concerns of the community lie, and may help you determine how your comments can help clarify some parts of PRPA that will assist the four bureaus better serve the paleontology community and the public and manage fossil resources.
The PRPA outlines what is deemed appropriate “casual collection,” fossil collecting done for personal, non-commercial use on BLM or Reclamation land (casual collecting is not allowed in BLM National Monuments, national conservation areas, outstanding natural areas, forest reserves, etc., unless specifically opened through the bureau planning process). This is the part of the law that affects citizen science, amateur fossil collectors, school and outreach groups, and any other group that just wants to go out and collect fossils for fun. Casual collecting only applies to non-vertebrate fossils, as any vertebrate fossils can only be collected with a permit and must be stored in an approved federal repository. Limits on the amount of non-vertebrate material that can be collected per day or per year are outlined in PRPA under the blanket term “reasonable amount”, and the act of collection must also do as little damage as possible to the land or habitat, under the blanket term “negligible disturbance.” In other words, if you want to take your family to a talus slope and collect a few trilobites, that’s okay. But it’s absolutely not okay to take a backhoe out to federal land and dig up a petrified tree for your lawn.
Concerns from the community lie under the terms “reasonable amount” and “negligible disturbance”, as these are broad terms, a one-size-fits-all approach to paleontology that doesn’t fit all cases. In the iDigBio webinar, Scott emphasized the need for alternative definitions that are still legal under that law and would fit reasonably, and invites the community’s thoughts on these terms and how to make them as transparent as possible to aid research and encourage casual collecting, all while protecting resources.
Another broad term that needs further definition in the PRPA is the term “common” fossil. Regarding casual collection, Section 6304 of PRPA states “that the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Reclamation shall allow casual collecting of a reasonable amount of common invertebrate and plant paleontological resources for noncommercial personal use when it results in negligible disturbance to the Earth’s surface.” [highlight added by me]
Some people seek further definition of the term “common,” because it can be difficult and impractical to state which fossils are or aren’t common; sometimes that can take decades to assess via research. And obviously not all non-vertebrate fossils are common, but under PRPA, it can be difficult to make the case of an uncommon invertebrate. The bureau will need to put out guidance for what is common and what isn’t, to alleviate any confusion this broad term can create. Again, if you have ideas or comments that can help make this legislation better, please comment in the next week!
Concerns were brought up during the webinar regarding publishing locality information because under PRPA, “information containing the nature and specific location of a paleontological resource shall be exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act and any other law unless the authorized officer determines that disclosure would (1) Further the purpose of the Act; (2) Not create risk of harm to or theft or destruction of the resource or the site; and (3) be in accordance with other applicable laws.”
So, in other words, keep it secret, keep it safe.
Where people are concerned is regarding how much locality information can be shared without violating the law. Obviously, paleontologists don’t want to be penalized because of something seemingly harmless published in a paper. In the webinar, Scott advised that the general rule of thumb should be the level of a county but not more specific than that if it can be helped. If it is appropriate to share locality information, then do so (with permission), but otherwise confidentiality is best in order to protect fossil resources. And of course, the government is keeping in mind other things, such as sacred sites, endangered species, etc. Scott ensured that data will be shared with researchers who need it, and the bureaus will set up policies that would allow that to occur.
What about people who casually collect fossils legally under PRPA, but then want to donate them to a museum, or they are later found to be scientifically important. Many people arose concerns about protecting citizen science, which is a valuable asset to the paleontology community. Amateurs and groups want to work with museums and institutions, and bureaus need to find a way to legitimize their work in accordance with PRPA, so that there is not blowback or penalties for donations to museums. And, technically, under the wording in PRPA, casually collected fossils are specifically ruled out from research. Scott addressed some of these concerns in the webinar, but seeks out further comments from the community.
There is one week to comment on the proposed rules of PRPA, at which point members from the four bureaus will work to alleviate concerns from the scientific community as well as fossil enthusiasts and amateur collectors. Your comments are needed, your ideas, your thoughts, your concerns, your voice. At a time where many feel helpless when it comes to the political sphere, here’s a chance to be a part of federal legislation. Submit your comments before February 6, 2017!
Note: The opinions and views I’ve expressed in this post are my own, and do not necessarily represent those of PLOS. Thanks to Andy Farke for additional comments!