Letter from Walt Lombardo
October 5, 2001
Dear Fellow Collectors and Dealers:
I received an e-mail from a former co-worker who now works for Nevada Senator Harry Reid (Democratic Senate Majority Whip) in Washington, D.C. He said they wanted to get some comments from “amateurs” so here goes.
The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) and a group called Save America’s Fossils for Everyone (SAFE) has persuaded members of the House and Senate to submit a bill next week which will make it illegal to collect almost all fossils from Public Lands. The PDF file containing the draft language of the bill is included as an attachment to this e-mail.To see the SVP position you can download the following online journal issue:
You’ll need Adobe Acrobat Reader, and the pertinent pages are 7-10. SVP would even like to shut down fossil collecting in other countries, probably through import/export restrictions.
A May 2000 position paper written by the Department of Interior (under the previous admininstration) can be downloaded at:
The SVP and Department of Interior positions, which are reflected in the bill, are chilling. This legislation would criminalize the collection of fossils from Public Lands to all but a select few. To collect fossils on federal lands, one will have to get a permit, which will be issued only for research and educational purposes. All fossils collected would be property of the US Government, to be stored at a federally approved depository. A small amount of “common” fossils could be collected by amateurs under the conditions that they be for personal use only (NONE to be sold), must be dug with hand tools only with no “significant” disturbance, and that the federal land manager of the area must consent to amateurs collecting fossils on lands that they control. This last point means that amateur collecting would be a discretionary activity, to be determined by each of the hundreds of land managers for the BLM and U.S. Forest Service (USFS).
If this bill is passed,collection of fossils on Public Lands (i.e. BLM, U.S.F.S.) for commercial purposes would be forbidden. If the value of the material is less than $1000, the crime would be a CLASS A MISDEAMEANER, if over $1000 then it is a CLASS E 0R CLASS D FELONY. Your automobile and collecting equipment could be confiscated, fines up to twice the damages are possible, as is jail time. Anyone who collects, encourages someone else to collect, sells, or buys a fossil collected illegally would be subject to these penalties. How will the BLM and USFS enforce this law? Probably through the FBI and Justice Department. Rather than looking for terrorists, bank robbers and murderers, Congress will have law enforcement set its sights on otherwise law abiding citizens who enjoy collecting fossils and those who currently sell them to universities, museums, teachers, collectors and children.
It appears that the major museum and university paleontologists do not want amateurs (or worse, commercial dealers) collecting fossils. It’s bad enough that most fossils are destroyed by weathering before anyone has a chance to find them, but now collecting will be limited to a handful of academic professionals with limited funding, limited staff, and a summer field season. Can you imagine the backlog of unidentified, uncataloged fossils which would pile up at museums and universities waiting for someone who has the time to examine them?
One of the flaws of logic presented in this bill is the idea that the majority of fossils are rare.
There are probably billions of fossils on Public Lands, at tens of thousands of fossil sites. How could the collecting of fossils by amateur and professional collectors significantly impact these sites? How many fossils from how many sites are actually being studied by academicians? How many millions of fossils will be lost due to weathering before they can be collected and preserved? Very few I’ll wager. There are approximately 2,000 members of SVP, not all of whom would be accredited to collect if this bill was passed. There are over 264 million acres of public land, at least half of which are covered with sedimentary rocks which potentially contain fossils. That would mean each of the 2,000 SVP members would need to collect and study 13,200 surface acres before these fossils are lost to the elements. This is not going to happen! What is wrong with having well educated amateur and professional collectors find fossils, preserve them and possibly sell them to collectors and institutions?
Apparently, the fact that many universities and museums have traditionally acquired fossils or fossil localities from amateur and professional collectors is ignored. As is the fact that many of the fossils bought and enjoyed by the public are collected by amateurs and professional collectors. How many children develop an interest in paleontology and the earth sciences after buying a fossil at a rock shop or gem & mineral show?
If this bill passes, it would be illegal for members of a gem and mineral club to collect trilobites, petrified wood or brachiopods and sell them at a club booth, at a gem & mineral show or a flea market. Professional collectors could expect a federal SWAT team to visit them at their home or place of business (including gem & mineral shows). How will you prove that fossils legally collected on public lands were collected before the bill was enacted? This law would create tens of thousands of potential felons in gem and mineral clubs across America. The May 2000 Department of Interior report recommends:
“Future actions should penalize the theft of fossils from federal lands in a way that maximizes the effectiveness of prosecutions and deters future thefts. Penalties should take into account, among other factors, the value of the fossils themselves, as well as any damage resulting from their illegal collection. Future program strategies should emphasize education of federal managers, prosecutors, law enforcement personnel and the judiciary regarding the value of fossils and the techniques for the appropriate protection of fossil resources.” (Page 9).
If this bill passes because of collector and dealer apathy, you can be assured that a ban on the collection of mineral specimens, gold and lapidary materials will be soon to follow. Within a few years it will virtually impossible to collect any geologic object from the western United States. How will we interest a new generation of rockhounds, and what will become of the tens of thousands of adults and especially senior citizens who look forward to rockhounding in the wide open spaces? This bill is a serious threat to our hobby, and a further erosion of our rights. I strongly encourage you to write to your congressional representatives. I have included the following links to find the appropriate addresses of your congressmen:
Also, please send a copy of the letter, fax or e-mail to Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) at:
Senator Harry Reid
Unfortunately, we do not have much time to mount a credible defense. I hope we can persuade our congressional leaders to reconsider this assault on our sensibilities. In your communications with your representatives you may want to use some of the points I have brought up in my letter. Please let them know how this bill will affect you. Be logical in your comments and show them that the majority of collectors are responsible citizens who do contribute to the body of paleontological knowledge.