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A Question of Ethics

page 12



Fossils are rare glimpses of past life. Countless animals die each year but only a few are protected from decay, sheltered in the layers of earth, to become fossils. Even fewer are ever found.

After lying undisturbed for millions of year, exposure at the surface endangers the fossil. Mining, construction, and erosion destroy countless fossils. Wind and water naturaly wear away delicate structures and scatter fragments. A fossil that is discovered by a caring individual and preserved for study is rare.

Fossils are hunted for their scientific, recreational, and economic value. Private companies, individuals, museums, and universities all seek specimens for their collections. Finding, excavating, and preparing specimens are costly. Their value is determined by the market demand, scientific potential, and individual quality.

Laws protect many state and federal lands from unnecessary fossil collecting. (Collecting fossils, stones, plants, and archeological material is prohibited on all parks, preserves, waterways and lands owned by the state of Iowa.) Permits are required in many areas and proposed federal legislation would establish stricter laws over use of paleontological resources. Private lands are not covered by current or proposed laws, but the collector should always receive the landowner's permission before entering private property.

A Controversy for Collectors: What should be protected--fossils, or the right to collect fossils? Currently, some Americans propose that congress pass the "Vertebrate Paleontology Protection Act" to limit fossil-collecting on federal lands. They encourage state to pass similar laws.


Supporters of the proposed law argue that vertebrate fossils: 

  • are a non-renewable resource;

  • are part of our natural heritage;

  • have scientific value;

  • properly documented and excavated fossils are of greater significance

To protect these resources, the proposed law would:

  • establish a permit system for all collectors;

  • discourage collecting for private and commercial uses;

  • encourage expansion of the National Paleontological data base;

  • and prohibit the sale of vertebrate fossils collected under federal permit

(The law would not restrict collecting on private land.)


Opponents argue that this proposed law: 

  • will not protect vertebrate fossils that are destroyed by mining

  • duplicates other permit requirements on many federal lands;

  • inhibits amateur collecting, which; encourages future scientists, l

  • locates new fossil sites, and fosters an interest in our natural heritage;

  • and overlooks the value of commercial collecting, which increases the chances of significant discoveries and adds to the pool of available specimens for research and display.


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