Public Lands, Public Fossils: The 10th Conference on Fossil Resources

Post written by Katie McComas & Lindsay Walker and reviewed by Talia Karim.

The Conference on Fossil Resources (CFR) has been held every two to five years since 1986, and focuses on the complex and ever-evolving challenge of managing paleontological resources on public lands. Originally planned to coincide with the Annual Meeting of SPNHC in Rapid City last year, the 10th CFR (and the many federal employees who take part in the meeting) fell victim to sequestration in 2013. It was rescheduled for May 13-15 this year, and we had an excuse to head back to the Black Hills of South Dakota and the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology campus in Rapid City.

The attendees of the 10th CFR were largely representatives of federal land management agencies, along with researchers from various academic institutions , mitigation paleontologists, and a smattering of non-federal paleontology collections professionals (including eight of us – two collections managers and six Museum and Field Studies graduate students – from the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History). A few major themes emerged from the conference:

  • Successful partnerships between researchers and land management agencies make a strong case for the preservation of fossil localities, and ultimately deepen public knowledge of the natural history of public lands.
  • Best practices for mitigation paleontology should emphasize scientific rigor and applications to research.
  • Methods for engaging the public in exploration of public lands must balance access to and preservation of paleontological resources.
  • Don’t pour goop on specimens in the field! Photogrammetry is increasingly being used to document fossil tracks without damaging the specimens.

CFR attendees also took an eye-opening mid-week field trip to Fossil Cycad National Monument, which was abolished as a National Monument in 1957 after decades of collecting had eliminated all known fossil cycads from the site. It stands as a striking example of an important paleontological resource lost through mismanagement.


Fossil Cycad (FOCY) National Monument (abolished), where the fossil cycadeoides used to roam. Now only CFR paleontologists do. (Photo credit: Katie McComas)


The highway seen in this photo was rerouted through FOCY in 1982 – many additional cycadeoides fossils were excavated during the project, but they were left unprotected and subsequently lost. (Photo credit: Katie McComas)


CFR attendees search for the elusive fossil tree trunk from a historical photo at FOCY. (Photo credit: Lindsay Walker)

What exactly is a paleontological resource? Before 2009, fossils were presumptively included under the broad umbrella of protection offered by the Antiquities Act of 1906, which refers to “objects of historic or scientific interest,” as well as by a number of subsequent pieces of legislation (NPS Organic Act of 1916, NEPA of 1969, FLPMA of 1976). With the passage of the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act in 2009, fossils on federal lands were officially defined and established as a resource requiring management.

The term ‘paleontological resource’ means any fossilized remains, traces, or imprints of organisms, preserved in or on the earth’s crust, that are of paleontological interest and that provide information about the history of life on earth […] – The Omnibus Public Land Management Act, Paleontological Resources Preservation Subtitle (16 U.S.C. 470aaa et seq)

The PRPA affirms the authority for many of the policies the Federal land managing agencies already have in place for the management of paleontological resources such as issuing permits for collecting paleontological resources, curation of paleontological resources, and confidentiality of locality data. The statute establishes new criminal and civil penalties for fossil theft and vandalism on Federal lands. – Bureau of Land Management Laws & Policy

The practiced management of fossils on public lands [those lands under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service (NPS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), United States Forest Service (USFS), and other federal, state, and local agencies] often means: providing access to fossil localities for paleontological research and mitigating the effects of land use unrelated to paleontological research (recreation, energy infrastructure development, and agriculture, to name a few). When these activities involve the collection or documentation of paleontological resources, federal and approved non-federal repositories enter to provide long-term management of the specimens and their associated data.

Reception for CFR attendees at the South Dakota School of Mines Museum of Geology.(Photo credit: Katie McComas)

Museum professionals are tasked with the fantastic challenge of balancing the preservation and use of specimens from public lands. Earlier this year, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) published a memorandum under the subject “Improving the Management of and Access to Scientific Collections” that laid out a strong directive to achieve a “systematic improvement of the development, management, accessibility, and preservation of scientific collections owned and/or funded by Federal agencies.”

Unfortunately, paleontology collections professionals from non-federal repositories made up a relatively small segment of the attendees at this year’s CFR. As a result, the significant discussions about the roles and responsibilities of repositories in paleontological resource management that were planned for the joint SPNHC-CFR meeting last year were absent. We hope that, in setting forth some of the major challenges facing paleontology collections professionals below, some of that discussion might take place here.

Challenges in the Management of Reposited Paleontology Collections:

  • Preservation of specimen context: Accurate locality data is essential for the use of specimens in paleontological research. Accessory documentation required for any incoming federal collections should include original field notes, precise geographic coordinates and metadata, and stratigraphic context of the study area.
    • How can repositories ensure that specimens collected from federal lands arrive with complete documentation? What obstacles currently stand in the way of this goal?
  • Informing land management decisions: Repositories, as holders of locality and specimen data, are in a position to provide valuable contextual data to land management agencies that can be used to minimize future loss of paleontological resources.
    • What steps can repositories take to make locality data more readily accessible and useful to federal land managers?
  • Sensitive fossil locality information: Fossils are hot commodities (see last year’s Bonhams auction of fossils), and a number of presentations at this year’s CFR highlighted the risk of theft and vandalism to fossils on public lands. Some have argued, however, that the redaction of locality data inhibits access to publicly-held collections and thus stands in direct opposition to the ‘accessibility’ portion of our mission as collections professionals (see April 2014 SPNHC Newsletter, Vol. 28(1): ‘From the President’)
    • What are the pros and cons of openly sharing or redacting fossil locality data?
  • Permitting and reporting: The current permitting process for collecting fossils on BLM land is somewhat cumbersome, and a new online system is being developed for electronic processing of applications and reports: the Scientific Permit Application and Tracking System (SPATS). This system is intended to streamline communication between land managers, researchers, and repositories. Initial online hosting of this system is slated for 2016, with a comment and approval period at the end of this year.
    • What functions and capabilities should be integrated into the online system to facilitate communication with repositories?
  • Repository agreements: In order to sustain federal collections, non-federal repositories must provide space and budgetary accommodations for the specimens. Space is always at a premium in collections facilities, and funding is scarce for routine collections care (budget items such as staff time, archival materials upkeep, IT infrastructural updates).
    • How can repositories and federal agencies partner effectively to ensure the long-term preservation of paleontological material from public lands? Are there lessons to be learned from the archaeological community?
  • Consumptive sampling requests: Use requests that permanently alter specimens must be carefully weighed against the probability that the proposed methods will be successful in generating results, the rarity of the fossil material being sampled, and the availability of nondestructive techniques that could be used to achieve the same research goals.
    • Are there standards that can be used to improve handling of requests for consumptive sampling/destructive analysis of federal collections?
  • Resource documentation: Digital formats to document fossil localities and specimens abound as powerful tools, such as high-resolution 2D and 3D photography and scanning, become more widespread as digitization efforts increase. That said, continued input from various stakeholders is needed to maximize the applications of these digital data to research and education.
    • How have repositories utilized digital specimen data to improve accessibility? What are the limitations of digital formats?
  • Management of derived specimen data: Clearly, with production of increasingly large digital datasets, digital data management consideration is becoming a real and pressing issue. Dialog related to the logistics of archiving and associating geochemical data with specimens provoked an extended discussion on the last day of the conference.
    • Can any lessons be learned from other types of collections: for example, the management of molecular data derived from zoology collections?

We’re interested to hear your thoughts!

Katie McComas received her M.S. in Museum and Field Studies from the University of Colorado – Boulder in May 2014, where she specialized in vertebrate paleontology collections management. She has a B.S. in Geology-Biology from Brown University.

Lindsay Walker is a Museum and Field Studies graduate student at the University of Colorado – Boulder, and specializes in invertebrate paleontology collections management. She has a B.S. in Geology from the University of Mary Washington.

Talia Karim is the Invertebrate Paleontology Collections Manager at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History, and a mentor to both authors!

Banner image: Bison in Custer State Park, Black Hills of South Dakota. (Photo: © Katie McComas)

Next time on Cracking the Collections: 

June 10 – Professional Development post by the Blog Team, with a preview of EPG activities planned for the upcoming Annual Meeting of SPNHC (June 22-27 in Cardiff, Wales).