Counterpoint: Proposed USFS regulations are good for paleontology and the American people

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[From time to time on The Integrative Paleontologists, we will invite guest bloggers to share alternate viewpoints about current topics. Today we feature a guest post from Matthew Brown, Vertebrate Paleontology Laboratories Manager at The University of Texas at Austin.]

The open comment period initiated by the publication of US Forest Service draft regulations in the Federal Register has sparked intense interest from the academic paleontology community (e.g., here and here). This is a great thing! However, both public and private discussions in recent weeks suffer in some ways from a lack of big picture perspective, and illuminate persistent misunderstandings about the responsibilities of public land managers to their resources. As an academic paleontologist, I argue that the draft proposal does not endanger research on Federal lands, contrary to points made by other scientists who wish to amend the regulations. In fact, it should only serve to strengthen research. The proposed regulations are asking for basic due diligence in scientific and collections methodology.

To summarize the protests, there is dissatisfaction with the requirement for USFS permission to undertake certain kinds of research. No one in this debate has contested the public ownership of vertebrate fossils from Federal lands. Federal agencies (USFS, NPS, BLM, etc.) are in the business of resource management, which includes balancing scientific research, public enjoyment, conservation, and commercial interests. Academic researchers are but one group of stakeholders in a diverse sphere of use, and academic institutions just one type of custodian for public resources. However, there remains a misconception about the role of custodianship within the museum community. This is not unique to paleontology, by the way; a number of museum groups have expressed discontent with the Federal system, especially directed toward the National Park Service.

The argument has been made that professional paleontologists and the museums they work for are best suited to make decisions about the well being of the specimens (see links above), assuming that they are more extensively trained (i.e., they are better equipped to assess the costs and benefits of various research techniques), and because they interact more regularly with the fossils in their care through research and curation. In many cases this claim may be true; though in fairness, many academically trained research paleontologists and collections managers are employed within the federal system. These are often the same individuals responsible for issuing permits and funding research projects in the first place, and many of them have advanced degrees in geology or paleontology. But even if the preceding argument was true, let us remember that Federal specimens housed in non-Federal collections are on loan to those institutions. They retain public ownership despite being held in non-Federal collections. Keeping that in mind, consider the following thought experiment.

Let’s say that my museum borrows a specimen from your museum for my research. Deciding that my 17 years of experience as a preparator, collections manager, and researcher qualifies me to make decisions about how to best analyze your specimens, I move forward with my project with no further communication to your museum. A few years later, you visit my museum, and open a drawer to find that I have sliced up some elements for histological analysis, ground up parts for isotopic analysis, loaned the skull to a grad student to mold the teeth for microwear analysis, that the student subsequently quit the program and no one can find your skull, and that I coated the remaining bones with Elmer’s Glue to “preserve” them. I also had the skull scanned and made the CT dataset available to a commercial company, who is now selling casts for profit. I got five great papers in top journals out of these studies, but I never sent you the references. You had no idea any of this took place, and when you asked me to return the loan and any data generated, I wrote to your museum director telling them that because this isn’t your area of expertise, you don’t have any business dictating how I do my job.

The described situation is not at all uncommon for inter-museum loans; any one aspect of this scenario should be familiar to anyone who has worked in collections for any length of time. Granted, it is highly unlikely for all examples to be represented in one loan; nonetheless, you wouldn’t be happy about encountering any of these facets in a loan returned to your institution. Yet this situation is precisely the kind of unilateral decision making that museums are calling for when it comes to doing research on publicly owned fossils.

Vertebrate fossils found on Federal lands belong to the American people, and the Federal agencies, under US law, are responsible for their care. The policies of the US Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, etc., are in place to protect the agencies, the resources, and the public from mismanagement. Certainly museums and researchers play a significant role as partners in the custodianship, but the Federal employees are the individuals responsible to Congress and to the public for the well being of those fossil specimens, and for balancing the needs of the diverse group of stakeholders with an interest in them. This fact cannot be changed through policy; it is regulated by United States law. It doesn’t matter if we think the policy places undue burden on researchers; the policy is written so that the agencies are compliant with Federal law.

The bottom line in these proposed regulations is accountability: accountability of the researchers to the land managers, of the land managers to Congress, and of Congress to the American people. To be sure, the Feds have not always been the greatest partners to academia, but of course the reverse is equally true. There are certainly not enough paleontologists in the Federal system; this is indeed a major problem. But that situation won’t improve if we as a scientific community fight the very regulations that lead to the creation of government research and resource management positions.

We already accept similar accountability in other aspects in our roles as shared custodians of these public resources, and they work to our ultimate benefit. For example, no museum should ever collect specimens under casual use provisions; research permits are an instrument to allow the land agencies to monitor land use, justify funding land maintenance, research projects, and government paleontology positions. It also prevents conflicting research and unnecessary destruction of public lands. Here, accountability prevents wasted public dollars and establishes that researchers are good partners in caring for fossil resources. Requiring specific permission and subsequent reporting is not an exercise in power trips. These are responsible accounting practices that demonstrate responsible use and support future research.

The core argument against the proposed provisions of USFS policy is that the expertise does not exist in the government system to make sound decisions in the best interest of specimens or research. However, this position abdicates the responsibility of researchers to educate those same land managers about the importance of their research and the resources. It also denies the federal agencies real data on how these resources are being used; data that can be used to justify further research, and further positions to enable that research. We as an academic community should be celebrating the opportunity to open positions in the Federal system for paleontologists. I have approximately 15 paleontology graduate students in my department who will graduate in the next few years. Will 15 curatorial or faculty positions in paleontology be available in that time? Probably not, given the state of most university and museum budgets. This leaves the Federal government as one of the few growth sectors in the science.

Sure, the proposed regulations may create more work for individual paleontologists. But conducting real science is hard, and the steps that the USFS and other entities are asking for strengthen the quality of that research, not hobble it. The system of permissions for sampling and analysis is a system of communication. If researchers are not communicating their desires (and research needs) to the agencies, then they are not doing their job as scientists and research partners in the use of these fossil resources. Refusal to work on Federal lands because the land managers want to know what is being collected, what is being done with the specimens, and ensuring accountability is petulant and shortsighted. The museum community reaction to proposed USFS regulations is the part of the conversation that is bad for paleontology.

Matthew A. Brown is the Vertebrate Paleontology Laboratories Manager at The University of Texas at Austin, and is closing in on 20 years of work in public and private universities, museums, and parks. He has conducted and participated in field work in NPS, BLM, USFS, and Peruvian National Park Service units, and has prepared, molded and cast, and destructively sampled fossil specimens from many of them. He is currently volunteering as Scientist-in-Residence at Petrified Forest National Park.

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