Pending Legislation Threatens Fossil Collecting

A major part of the mission of Carnegie Museum of Natural History is to preserve, exhibit and interpret its world-class collection of fossil vertebrates for the American public. The vast majority of our fossil specimens were found on federally managed public lands in the western United States. Under current law, all fossil vertebrates found on public lands are considered to be part of our national heritage, and therefore belong to the American people as a whole. As such, natural history museums technically do not "own" these fossils; rather, we maintain them in perpetuity on behalf of the people of the United States and their government.

A bill recently introduced in the U.S. Congress ("The Fossil Preservation Act of 1996," HR 2943) would dramatically alter the status of fossil vertebrates on America's public lands. Instead of treating these fossils as part of our national heritage, we would be turning over dinosaurs and other fossil vertebrates to be exploited as commodities by commercial dealers for individual economic gain. It is important to emphasize that this proposed legislation applies only to fossil vertebrates on public lands-it is already legal for commercial fossil dealers to buy and sell dinosaurs and other fossil vertebrates found on privately owned land in the United States. The issue here is whether fossils occurring on public lands also should be available for exploitation by commercial fossil dealers.

If "The Fossil Preservation Act of 1996" is passed into law, its negative impacts on the educational role of institutions like Carnegie Museum of Natural History would be formidable. Because of a growing demand for high-quality fossil vertebrates (especially dinosaurs) on the open market, this legislation would likely result in a modern-day fossil "gold rush" on the public lands. Given these new and unrestricted economic incentives, a growing number of commercial fossil dealers would have an unfair advantage over scientists representing natural history museums, universities and other institutions dedicated to preserving our prehistoric heritage for everyone. Moreover, most American museums lack the financial resources to pay market prices to commercial dealers for dinosaurs and other fossil vertebrates. Indeed, the major demand for these fossils is overseas, where foreign museums and private collectors are willing to pay top dollar for America's prehistoric heritage.

Not only would passage of "The Fossil Preservation Act of 1996" make it more difficult for Carnegie Museum of Natural History to obtain the highest quality fossil vertebrates for public exhibition, but it would also severely hamper paleontological research and education. Advances in our knowledge of the history of life on Earth are ultimately based on rigorous scientific study of the fossils of extinct organisms. An important function of our museum is to provide qualified researchers with access to its outstanding fossil collections. Obviously, this type of access to critical fossils is impeded each time a significant fossil specimen is sold into private hands (and thereby removed from the public domain). Ironically, just as vertebrate paleontology is entering an exciting period of renaissance (witness the new views on dinosaur biology popularized by the film Jurassic Park), scientific research on America's prehistoric heritage may be squelched by legislation meant to benefit a tiny special interest group. It is not too late to express your views on this issue by contacting your U.S. senators and representatives.

Chris Beard, Associate Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology, Carnegie Museum of Natural History