Letter to DNR about Fossils

March 1, 2010

To Whom It May Concern,

There are a number of comments that I would like to make regarding the proposed new changes in DNR regulations, specifically related to paleontological resources (fossils).

I should start by saying that I have no problems with the regulations dealing with the preservation of historic and archeaological resources. These are fairly unique and limited in occurrence, and should be protected by requiring permits for their research or disturbance. The regulations are drafted appropriately by people familiar with the science of archaeology, in a department created for and meant to deal with such issues.

However, I do see MAJOR problems with these same people applying similar regulations to paleontological resources, for which they are not accustomed. Though their intentions are good, blanket inclusion of fossils along with cultural objects in this way shows a lack of understanding and reflects a determination typical of people unfamiliar or misinformed.

Quite simply, it is a very bad idea, and would be a major mistake--for ALL involved.

The main problem here is that we are mixing two very different issues: archaeology and paleontology. Or consider their objects of study: artifacts versus fossils. Now I realize that Americans are not the most educated people in the world, and most don't know the difference between these two fields, or the two categories of objects. But the distinctions are of critical importance here at this time, and I certainly hope that, when drafting new regulations, the differences are fully realized by those making the changes. Rules applying to paleontological resources (fossils) must be drafted by a paleontologist (a trained geologist), rather than by an archaeologist (who is not a geologist at all!).

A more comprehensive analysis appears below; but so as not to overwhelm the reader, and if nothing else is to be read, please consider what the National Academy of Science has to say:

The National Academy of Science completed a comprehensive three year study into the regulation of fossil collecting, involving virtually every affected group. Their conclusions were: "we challenge the archeology-paleontology link and urge a different approach to the 'regulation' of fossil collecting ... that would benefit the science", "the role of the land manager should be to facilitate exploration for and the collection of paleontological materials", and "paleontology is best served by unimpeded access to fossils" on public lands.


I briefly outline the key points to be explained in more detail in the following pages:

In conclusion, I urge you to remove all restrictions to the collection of fossils (or the disturbance of paleontological resources) from your proposed new changes in regulations. Please consider the overwhelming evidence presented below, as well as the recommendations by the National Academy of Science, that such limitations are both unnecessary and unwise.


Curvin Metzler

CC:   Senator Lisa Murkowski
        Senator Mark Begich
        Representative Don Young
        Governor Sean Parnell
        American Lands Access Association

The proposed regulations are far too strict and overly encompassing.

There is no other state with such regulations as you are proposing. Usually, there is some sort of restriction on tools (such as hand tools only), the amount of material removed (a daily limit), and where to collect (areas with RARE vertebrate fossils are often excluded). But hobby collection is welcomed (even for most vertebrates), and commercial collection may even be encouraged (with the sale of permits being a source of revenue). The other states have been explored and fossil collected for a much longer time and to a much greater extent than Alaska, yet those states have not seen reason to draft regulations such as you propose.

In most states, anyone is allowed to collect fossils, and sell them, no permit required. In some states, such as Florida, a permit is required, but only in some areas and only for collecting vertebrate fossils. In this case, significant finds must be shown to certain officials, who look for and take custody of anything they determine valuable to science. The remainder may be kept by the finder, who is legally allowed to sell them if desired. This seems to benefit all those involved: the collector enjoys the opportunity to find the fossils, the state (or designated museum) ends up with any significant specimens, the scientists get to study and preserve what is important to them, the finder may either keep their finds or sell them for profit, and the rest of the world may purchase what is sold.

I'm wondering, what is the purpose of this new regulation? If the proposed regulations are approved as written, anyone who so much as moves a rock on state land is in violation and can be prosecuted! Is this what you want? If not, why bother writing such extreme regulations? How much of the population of Alaska do you intend on labeling as criminals? If Alaska doesn't have the resources to jail all those breaking the law, then what's the point in making their actions illegal? You're going to look pretty stupid there in court, trying to explain that you really didn't mean for moving that rock to be a misdemeanor! But that's what you have written. MOST rocks in Alaska contain fossils or fossil evidence, and ALL rocks are "historic", in that they have recorded a time capsule of earth's history.

The way I look at it, there are various levels of regulating fossil collection, from no rules at all to the extreme level that you are proposing. No rules would allow anyone to come in with heavy equipment and tear up the tundra anywhere on state land and destroy the resulting materials. Kind of like what DOT does, but anyone can do it without a permit. This would NOT be good, and I don't think anyone would want this extreme lack of rules. But the other extreme is just as insane, and is exactly the regulations you have proposed!

The details here involve: 1) who is allowed to collect, 2) what equipment may they use, 3) how much may they take, 4) must they present it to anyone, and 5) may they sell it?

I agree with the National Academy of Science, that anyone should be allowed to collect fossils on public land, without needing a permit. However, I don't think the collector should be allowed to use heavy equipment, or any power tools at all, other than perhaps for transport. There's already a daily limit to how much material may be taken from state land.

The terms used are undefined, vague and subject to misinterpretation.

The proposed regulations don't fully define what is meant when referring to a "fossil". Such a broad term includes resources very common in Alaska, such as coal and oil (there's a reason they're called "fossil fuels") and corals (much of Alaska, from southeast islands to the northern Brooks Range, were coral reef communities during the Paleozoic). Included as macrofossils are such common items as Quaternary bison bones, Cenozoic shells from ancient beaches, Mesozoic shells and fish scales from accreted terranes, Paleozoic shells from reef environments, and Precambrian stromatolites and their resulting sedimentary structures. It also includes all microfossils (such as diatoms, radiolarians, cyanobacteria, protists, conodonts, ostracods, spores and pollen) and trace fossils (worm tubes to dinosaur tracks). In reality, not many rocks are excluded. Why not just say "rocks" instead of "fossils"?

There's also a difference between fossil specimens and rock containing fossils, and this needs to be clarified if there are restrictions and penalties. Since visible fossils are found in many sedimentary rock deposits, do the proposed regulations include the removal of those rocks? What determines when a fossil contained in a rock becomes a specimen? Most fossils, including expensive specimens, are not worth much until they are "prepared" using appropriate tools. The value of the specimen is almost completely determined by the amount of time spent on work done on the fossil. Simply including the word "fossil" in a list of items restricted from removal from state land is completely unsatisfactory. The term, if not defined, is vague, and the regulations thus subject to misinterpretation.

If you're worried about losing "significant" fossils, especially vertebrate material, then perhaps vertebrate fossils should be restricted. But NOT ALL vertebrate fossils are rare and not all need to be protected, so blanket exclusion of vertebrate fossil collection is also a bad idea. For example, disarticulated herbivore bones are very common, including small mammoth bones and especially bison bones. Perhaps the best way to deal with these complicated instructions is to just require that all collected fossils be reviewed by a trained paleontologist to determine what can be kept and what must be surrendered. This would ensure that science would not lose valuable specimens, but the fossil collector would also benefit, either by the honor of contributing to science or by the privilege to keep the specimens. If the collector was allowed to sell specimens as well, even more people would become familiar with the fossils, and science and education would be further advanced.

Fossils are essentially infinitely more common than cultural objects.

According to the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, archaeology is "the scientific study of material remains of past human life and activities", and paleontology is "a science dealing with the life of past geological periods as known from fossil remains".

  1. Notice that archaeology deals with one SINGLE species (humans), which is currently living, whereas paleontology deals with the literally BILLIONS of other species, whether animal or plant, that have EVER been alive on earth.

  2. Furthermore, humans in Alaska (the place of concern here) go back maybe 30 THOUSAND years, whereas ancient life forms here go back at least 1 BILLION years (like the Precambrian stromatolites located near the Canadian border).

  3. Artifacts may be found slightly below the ground surface, in strata limited to ONE geologic time period, the Holocene (the shortest and most recent). Fossils appear in strata, which can be of ANY geologic age, and which extend continuously for hundreds of miles where found (such as Paleozoic corals running across the Brooks Range from the Canadian border to the Bering Sea).

  4. Smaller creatures at lower levels in the food chain, such as insects and plankton, have much higher populations than do larger creatures at higher levels, such as humans. So it follows that their fossils, as skeletons or shells, would be FAR more numerous than human remains or cultural objects. Predator to prey ratios require orders of magnitude factors at EACH level.

If we consider the four differences listed above, and multiply out the ratios for each, it should be obvious that fossils are essentially infinitely more abundant than artifacts.

Restrictions actually hinder the advancement of science and education.

The National Academy of Science completed a comprehensive three year study into the regulation of fossil collecting, involving virtually every affected group. Their conclusions were: "we challenge the archeology-paleontology link and urge a different approach to the 'regulation' of fossil collecting ... that would benefit the science", "the role of the land manager should be to facilitate exploration for and the collection of paleontological materials", and "paleontology is best served by unimpeded access to fossils" on public lands. THIS RECOMMENDATION ALONE SHOULD BE CONVINCING ENOUGH!

The best fossil museums in our country are located in places where people are encouraged to collect fossils! They thrive on the support they receive from amateur paleontologists. Pleistocene vertebrate fossils fill museums from Florida to California. In the southeast (Florida and the Carolinas) and along the Mississippi River (and its tributaries), many bones of mammoths and other ice age vertebrates are found every year by amateurs as well as commercial collectors. The best of these finds end up in museums, because there has been a cooperation between collectors and science, a relationship of working together that has been going on for 200 years! Museums appreciate the donations, and reward the donors by placing their names on signs next to the specimens. Amateur collectors feel honored by being able to contribute to science. But contributions diminish as restrictions increase.

If fossil collecting becomes illegal, or is regulated by beaurocratic permits, cooperation as such will stop. When fossil collecting is outlawed, only outlaws will collect fossils.

In the past, here in Alaska, there was also a similar cooperation, which resulted in many of the University of Alaska Fairbanks "Museum of the North" collections, such as Blue Babe, the Pleistocene bison found and donated by a gold miner. But because of recent uncertainty about the legality of picking up such discoveries, miners are afraid to announce what they find to science, and are more likely to simply rebury them or let them wash on downstream.

There are some misconceptions about fossils which need clarification.

I will also comment on a few common MISCONCEPTIONS concerning fossil collecting, first by stating (in brackets and quotes) what the uneducated general public commonly believes, followed by a reality check, and finally a few notes relating the issue to Alaska.

1) ["Fossils are rare."] This is certainly not the case; fossils, even vertebrate fossils, are quite ABUNDANT. According to Dr. Charles Love, geologist from Western Wyoming College, "Just one-half mile layer [of the Green River Formation] ... contained 12 billion fish [which are vertebrate fossils]. That's enough to give two [fossil fish] to every person on the planet." And the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology at the University of Nebraska stated to a local Cairo (Nebraska) newspaper that they had estimated 3000 elephant (mammoth) skeletons per square mile lying under Nebraskan soil.

The southern half of Florida is composed of shell fossils, such that the land area has emerged from the ocean by the accumulation of such fossil material. Vertebrate fossils are included: sharks teeth, ray plates, fish vertebrae, and the bones of VERY MANY land and marine mammals. In fact, these vertebrate fossils continue northward, occurring all along the east coast, and at scattered locations on the west coast (where not subducted).

I've backpacked and explored much of Alaska for over the past thirty years, and the number of ammonite fossils in the Talkeetna Mountains or across the Cook Inlet is astronomical. The rock layers containing these fossils go on for hundreds of miles, and even if one were to operate a huge open pit mine, it would still take CENTURIES to exhaust the resources!

As for vertebrate fossils, the Pleistocene bones (bison, mammoth, horse, etc.) found in interior Alaska are extremely numerous, and are still found in great numbers today, even in areas which were dredged or mined extensively for the past hundred years. The skulls of cats and other predators are rare, and may warrant protection as an exception. But the bones of herbivores are quite common; museums are full of them and have no place to store any more! And in my decades of hiking, I can say that there are plenty of unidentifiable fish bones and sharks teeth in some areas, as well as fish scales present by the MILLIONS.

2) ["Public lands are raped, pillaged, plundered or poached of fossil by greedy amateur and commercial collectors"] This is simply false. Once exposed, almost all fossils are DESTROYED by the same WEATHERING forces (wind, rain, ice, snow) which uncovered them to begin with. Even the potential damage done by careless, negligent, greedy collectors is INSIGNIFICANT compared to the billions destroyed every year by mother nature herself.

Fossil Point, near the mouth of Tuxedni Bay, across Cook Inlet from Ninilchik, is an area known for decades to contain marine fossils, including clams and ammonites. It is only one of dozens (if not hundreds) of fossil localities along the west side of Cook Inlet, but popularized by its easy access and closeness to popular recreational spots. I have visited Fossil Point numerous times by airplane, skiff and fishing boat, yet each year I have seen as many fossils as the time before--even at such a highly accessed locality.

The leaf fossils and petrified wood at the Jonesville Mines near Sutton are also quite abundant and show no signs of being played out, even though thousands of visitors have taken home specimens for decades. In fact, having collected there for thirty years, I can verify that the only incident which significantly decreased the availability of fossils was the RECLAMATION project by the State of Alaska itself! In the interest of liability, major portions (including an area containing the best leaves) were DESTROYED and buried.

3) ["Fossils can be protected for future generations by leaving them in the ground"] On the contrary, fossils can only be preserved for posterity if they are FOUND and COLLECTED. It would require every possible person getting out looking for and picking up fossils if just a small percentage are to be saved for research and display. And considering the ruggedness and remoteness of Alaska, and how few people get off the beaten track, this would require encouragement to collect rather than regulations opposing such activity.

In thirty years of rockhounding and fossil collecting across much of Alaska, I have seen quite a bit of change in access, especially in the proliferation of 4-wheelers in the past few years. Since many more people are getting out there, it has become more difficult to find specimens--but the number of fossils AVAILABLE for collecting has not diminished! That is, although it's not as easy to find specimens, it's not because they are running out, but because the number of people to share them with has increased. If anything, less fossils are lost to nature, because more are being spotted, picked up and taken home.

4) ["Only academic (university or museum) paleontologists can be trusted to do paleontology correctly"] Not true. Of the eighteen Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons collected so far, ALL BUT ONE were discovered by amateur or non-academic professional collectors. Eminent paleontologist Dr. Robert Bakker stated that OVER 80% of all major paleontological discoveries are made by AMATEURS! Considering all the major discoveries made by amateur, private and professional paleontologists, the fraction made by academic scientists is rather small. About twelve years ago, Dr. Jack Horner (Museum of the Rockies, Montana) was visiting Alaska and gave a lecture. He was encouraging the public to search the area around Homer for fossils, because he thought dinosaur remains should be present there. Academic institutions, low in time and money, depend on amateurs to do their leg work.

In archaeology, detailed "provenience" data is carefully recorded, giving exact locations and orientations of objects relative to a fixed point, because otherwise such information will be lost when the object is removed, and it may prove to be valuable in the future. This involves tedious measurements and proper training--that is, a qualified archaeologist.

However, because many fossils are scattered and disarticulated death assemblages or bone beds, such accurate data is rarely useful and usually just knowing the stratum and general location (latitude, longitude, elevation) is enough, especially if the specimens have been collected as "float"--being already weathered away from the outcrop where they originated. There is usually no need for a properly trained paleontologist to do the fossil collection.

Paleontology, just like astronomy, is a science which not only benefits from the work of amateurs, but in fact, actually relies heavily on the contributions made by amateurs.

Now let me tell you about my own personal experiences with academic paleontology here in Alaska, involving our two museums. During the initial years of operation of the Museum of Natural History (in Eagle River), I loaned most of my collection of fossils, primarily ammonites, to them for display. Before they moved from that location, they asked those who had loaned material to come and retrieve it in order to make their move go smoother. However, when I went to pick up my specimens, most were "not to be found". The large (140 pound) ammonite was present, as well as most of my fossil plants and bivalves. But the dozens of remaining ammonites, including a showcase full of unique black ammonites from Chinitna Bay, were all missing. Though I've tried numerous times since then to recover the specimens, nobody seems to know or care about them. And I'm not alone here--I have run into a number of other people with similar stories. If this is how museums treat the specimens they value enough to put on display, how well do they handle curation of what's stored in the basement? Amateur collectors certainly take better care of the specimens they've spent part of their life obtaining. I certainly don't plan on loaning any more of my collections to that museum (now called the Alaska Museum of Natural History, located in Mountain View) until they locate and return the specimens of mine that they've lost.

I feel much better about curation efforts at the University of Alaska Fairbanks "Museum of the North". However, even they have lost a specimen of mine--and the only one that I had given them. It was an ice age musk ox skull that I had found on a museum raft trip down the Colville River. I was one of seven members of the expedition, with a mission to look for dinosaur tracks. (I was the first person to find a therapod track, the first on the trip to find a dinosaur track with a skin impression, and the only one to find an ice age bone--the musk ox skull.) But the fossil supposedly never made it to the museum! It was said to have disappeared en route, yet nobody ever bothered to track it down. I certainly would not have lost the specimen, had it been in my hands instead (an amateur collector).

Furthermore, these two museums (especially the one in Fairbanks) are the repositories for any paleontological material (fossils) found by scientists (who are predominantly from outside of Alaska), as they are required by their permit to deposit the materials there. But have you ever visited these museums? Of the thousands of vertebrate specimens held in their storage (at least at UAF), how many are ever on display? What's the chance someone of the general public, interested just in seeing a collection of ice age bones, to do so? Is that the point of further regulation? To prevent anyone from having the pleasures of: 1) finding fossils, 2) touching fossils, 3) taking fossils home, and 4) viewing fossils?

Amateur fossil collecting has already been significant here in Alaska.

I quote from Dr. Bruce Stinchcomb, a paleontologist and retired geology professor who worked with fossils in Alaska years ago as an exploration geologist. More recently, he revisited Alaska several times to study Jurassic cycads in the Talkeetna Mountains, as well as Mississippian/Pennsylvanian marine fossils and Cambrian trilobites in the Brooks Range. Alaskan specimens appear in four of his recent books on fossils in geologic time.

"Amateur" in its original meaning refers to someone who does something for the love of it rather than doing it for profit. Amateur paleontology is just that: doing something fossil related (often collecting) for the love of it rather than for a profit. Amateur paleontology also has a rich and long history in its contribution to geology and the consequent documentation of the fossil record. For 200 years amateur paleontologists have located and obtained a sizeable part of the fossil record. Most of these fossils ultimately find their way into academia (museums, geology departments and other scientific collections).
Nature has emplaced enough hurdles and barriers for acquisition of her fossils without manmade ones! The enthusiastic person will sometimes transcend nature's barriers and discover scienficially new and interesting specimens. This should continue into the future if unimpeded, since there are vast numbers of fossils in the rocks of the earth's crust, and vast numbers of fossils of organisms in the rocks are still unknown to science. What is really the most valuable commodity in the acquisition of scientifically new material in paleontology is the enthusiastic person (amateur or academic) who as a consequence of this enthusiam transcends those barriers nature has placed on the acquisition of her fossils. The consequence of additional manmade barriers is that much less is collected! -- and more is destroyed. Thus the potential available paleontological data base thins. With manmade barriers, wedges are also often driven between the "professional" and amateur effectively limiting or even destroying communication between these two groups; it is science that in the long run suffers.

I myself am an amateur paleontologist, collecting for thirty years here in Alaska, but also for ten years while traveling across the US. In Texas in March of 2006, I discovered some vase sponges which I showed to local paleontologists who had never seen them before. There ended up being at least one new genus and two new species (for descriptions, see Journal of Paleontology 82(3):492-510). In Alaska, I discovered some new localities and a number of new species, though most of these are still being written up for publication. Included are numerous Mesozoic bones (reptile and fish) and an early dinosaur/bird track. I've been sharing my findings with paleontologists and cooperative academic institutions. I've also posted my collections on a website for the whole world to view (at no charge).

Other AMATEURS who have made important discoveries include Kevin May and his wife, who discovered Lizzy, the most complete dinosaur found in Alaska and the oldest hadrosaur in the country. Kevin also found dinosaur tracks in various places around the state, and mammal tracks in the Sutton area. A boy and his father, on a raft trip, discovered the skull of an American lion, a rare find which went on display at the Alaska Museum of Natural History. And a group of kids discovered a Cenozoic fossil turtle at Moose Creek, along the Glenn Highway, which was also donated to a museum for study and display. And a student on a UAF field trip to Denali National Park found the first dinosaur track there.

If restrictive regulations, even just the requirement of obtaining permits, are approved, amateur collecting will NOT stop; there are simply too many people out there doing it. However, since it will become illegal, the reporting of such important finds WILL stop. The value of fossils (most currently having little or no monetary value) will increase, and people will begin to sell their finds for profit. Essentially, it will turn what is now recreational fossil collecting into an illegal activity which will go underground.

Furthermore, it will take away yet another of our freedoms. What happened to our right to a pursuit of happiness. What are kids supposed to do when all their hobbies are illegal? Of all the states, Alaska is the most remote and unexplored. Why prevent it from further exploration? No one cares what fossils are lost to road building and home development. Where is the perspective here? Why prevent or delay the discovery of important fossils? There are already regulations on how much material one is allowed to take from state and federal land on a daily basis. Why do we need to require permits or further restrict it?

In conclusion, I'm wondering just what these proposed regulations are supposed to achieve? Are they part of a master plan to expand the state beaurocracy by requiring permits for everything? Are they an attempt to hinder the science of paleontology by taking away its most popular contributors? Are they designed for the purpose of allowing the weathering processes to destroy greater numbers of fossils? Are they an attempt to give museums more of a monopoly in the collection and presentation of fossils? I really don't see a single advantage, in the long run, for the science of paleontology, or anyone involved, at any level, to requiring a permit for the act of fossil collecting on state land in Alaska.

As said before, I urge you to remove all restrictions to the collection of fossils (or the disturbance of paleontological resources) from your proposed new changes in regulations. Please consider the overwhelming evidence presented here, as well as the recommendations by the National Academy of Science, that such limitations are both unnecessary and unwise. Without a question, a paleontologist MUST be involved in drafting any regulations dealing with paleontological resources (fossils)! And it should not be someone with obligations resulting in a conflict of interest, such as an employee at a museum used as a repository.

Why not adapt the same rules as other states, such as Florida, where permits are required ONLY for vertebrate fossils in specific areas, such as where bones are articulated (not scattered, relatively in place) or where the species are rare (most identifiable dinosaur remains). And then, the permit holder should be able to keep what an appointed official determines is not important to science. Certainly, placer gold miners, who routinely find scattered bones amongst the gravels, should be able to keep OR SELL their common finds.

What are my qualifications for giving comments and making suggestions?

I'm an amateur paleontologist--one of those who'll be most affected by the proposed changes. I think I've taken every course involving paleontology ever offered at the University of Alaska Anchorage (about half a dozen). I've been on a raft trip organized by UAF (Museum of the North) to hunt dinosaur tracks, I've helped excavate the dinosaur skeleton (Lizzy) from the Talkeetna Mountains, and I've been along on a few specimen finding trips for UAA or the Alaska Museum of Natural History (such as Wishbone Hill). I've also assisted a few paleontologists with their research here, including scientists from Alaska, other states, and other countries. I've searched for fossils in Alaska for over thirty years, and in about thirty other states during the past ten years. I've visited many museums across the country and around the world, and I'm quite familiar with what fossils are available for purchase worldwide from having visited the "Gem Show" in Tucson, Arizona, for ten years. I'm also a member of MAPS (the Mid America Paleontology Society), a nonprofit organization which promotes interest and education in paleontology, encourages and assists individuals and institutions in proper techniques for collection, preparation and display of fossils.