Over the years we have developed a philosophy about fossil collecting and the ethics of it. In today’s climate of pending legislation and present laws we feel that it would be appropriate to express ourselves about what we believe in and encourage others to be responsible and law abiding citizens. Federal laws and most states prohibit the collecting of vertebrate fossils on public lands. For those of us who live in the western states, that presents a significant restriction, since public lands amount to 80% or more of the total land space.
We believe that the interests of science need to be considered first. Unfortunately, science or academia has neither the manpower nor financial resources to properly collect all of the things that are out there waiting to be discovered. Were it not for the efforts of individuals from the nonacademic community, significant amounts of scientific information would never come to light.
We frequently talk to groups (scouts, clubs, schools and even university classes) about our collecting. We always encourage people to be curious and collect fossils. We never discourage this effort. We recommend that they be law abiding and courteous. Always respect private property, never litter, get permits when required, obey the laws, learn what the regulations are, study the literature and learn what fossils are found there and how to recognize them, always keep an eye open for unusual things, keep records of when and where things are found, carefully protect specimens from handling damage, and it is very important that you ask questions.
Many years ago we discovered the satisfaction and benefits of donating fossils to science. First we became familiar with a few Paleontologists and learned what were their specialties. We took specimens to them to identify. Occasionally we presented them with specimens that they could not identify. They recommended names of other specialists who could help us. We let them know that if the specimen was of scientific interest that we would be willing to donate them. We were pleased to learn that one of the specimens we donated was being named in our honor. Since then, many other species have been named in our honor. The Paleontological Society even honored us by presenting us with the first Strimple Award, which honors outstanding contributions to science by nonacademic persons. We also discovered the financial benefits by taking tax deductions for the retail value of the fossils.
Make no mistake, we are collectors and love to have an excellent collection. Most of the things we find are not scientifically important so they go into our collection. We always look for better specimens to improve our personal collection. Inferior specimens can be moved from the collection by many means. We give them to friends or put them in school kits we donate and take a tax deduction, or trade with other collectors to acquire new things for our collection.
We have no opposition in general to people who wish to sell fossils. For the most part, we avoid the temptation to join this group. We feel that there are many fossils that are common and unimportant and see no reason to restrict the collecting and selling of such. We are often disappointed to learn that commercial collectors are sometimes inconsiderate and do unethical things. Sometimes they plow through overburden to get to the most valuable and productive layers while discarding and spoiling nice and sometimes scientifically important specimens. They destroy collecting spots for others by extensive digging for days, depriving amateurs of opportunity to collect on public lands. They have sometimes sold rare and very important specimens rather than share them with science. Many collect illegally and falsify records to indicate where specimens originated and important data is lost.
Many commercial collectors loose focus that they are collecting on public land, which should be free for all to enjoy, while they stake their claim and run off intruders. Some acquire leases or permits and then abuse them by failing to report significant finds and greatly undervalue the things they report in order to increase their profits. It is also unfortunate that the government lacks the resources to either enforce its regulations or give incentives for those who keep the laws. It is also unfortunate that the present laws are too broad and do not meet the needs of science, commercial collectors or amateurs. For example, public officials tend to neglect commercial collectors on public lands that find a Cambrian invertebrate fossils such as a very rare Anomalocaris and sell it for tens of thousands of dollars to be placed in a personal collection. But they pay a great amount of attention to the illegal collecting of one common Green River fish fossil of which there are literally billions because they are vertebrate.
We encourage our legislators to consider all interested parties when considering the writing of laws regarding collecting on public lands. The laws should encourage the use of the lands by all, they should give incentive to those collecting that science might be the beneficiary of the laws and disincentives for those who ignore them. Most of all, we encourage all people to take an interest, become educated and knowledgeable about the importance of fossils and to take care of this precious resource.
Val Gunther & Glade Gunther