Remains of the Day

Crucial legislation preserves fossils on federal lands.

By Scott Kirkwood

When visitors to Petrified Forest National Park consider pocketing a shard of petrified wood as a souvenir, a friendly ranger may ask them to consider what would happen if every visitor did the same thing. A nice bit of persuasive skills, but the premise is a little farfetched, right? Actually, it’s almost exactly what unfolded at a South Dakota park unit called Fossil Cycad National Monument. President Warren G. Harding established the site in 1922 to set aside petrified plant remains, but researchers and looters plundered the grounds, removing every fossil above the surface, and eliminating the sole reason for its existence. Fossil Cycad was removed from the Park System in 1957.

Defined as the remains of life captured in rock, fossils include the bones of a dinosaur, the teeth of a mammal, and even the impression of plant leaves or a footprint. Of course, it’s always been illegal to remove fossils or any other natural material from a national park, but the penalty was rarely more than a slap on the wrist. As interest in these fragments of our natural history has increased over the last 50 years, the incentive to collect and trade fossils has risen exponentially. “When the famous Tyrannosaurus rex fossil, ‘Sue’ was sold for $8.5 million in 1997, people considered quitting their jobs to find their own million dollar dinosaur,” says Vincent Santucci, chief paleontologist for the Park Service. Meanwhile, the consequences for those caught red-handed haven’t changed.

Until now. In March, the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act increased penalties for removing fossils from land managed by the federal government, including the Park Service, Forest Service, Fish & Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management. First-time violations can be punished with fines up to $20,000 and up to two years in prison; subsequent violations will cost up to $100,000 and five years in prison. The hope is the new legislation will do for fossils what the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 did for Native American artifacts, which had been vanishing as demand skyrocketed.

But as Santucci is quick to point out, prison terms and pricy penalties aren’t the only tools, or even the most effective ones. Visitor education has always been one of the best ways to remind people to protect park resources, which is why a key provision in the new legislation requires a public-awareness component. A Junior Paleontologist program will be fashioned after the popular Junior Ranger program, and the connection between national parks and fossils will be made even more clear to visitors at dozens of park units.

“You can watch a film like Jurassic Park in a theater or go to museums like the Smithsonian and see fossils that have been removed from the rock, polished, and reassembled, but national parks provide opportunities for the public to see fossils in a natural state—essentially in the wild,” says Santucci.

Because paleontology generally provides a child’s first formal introduction to science, many six-year-olds can rattle off complicated words like pterodactyl and stegosaurus. But they’re not the only ones learning from fossils—these prehistoric clues are still revealing new information about our planet. “Fossils provide the most direct evidence for us to understand the history of life, illustrating the impact of climate change and even the movement of continents,” says Santucci. “These truly are nonrenewable resources—we’re not making any more T-rexs. And we can’t afford to lose them. In 25 years of working in paleontology, I’ve found that most of what is to be learned about the story of life is yet to be discovered—we’ve only scratched the surface.”

Scott Kirkwood is editor in chief of National Parks magazine.

This article appears in the Summer 2009 issue.

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