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

[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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9 Responses to Counterpoint: Proposed USFS regulations are good for paleontology and the American people

  1. Andrew Farke says:

    Thank you for a thoughtful and thorough post! As a minor clarification on my previous posts, I should make clear that I recognize and appreciate the contributions of our federal paleontologists (in fact, several of us just named a dinosaur after one, in honor of his contributions). I completely agree that we need more in the system, and that these new regulations will hopefully accomplish that. That said, as an alternative to all power being placed with the museums for many decisions, I would want to see a mandate that all paleo-related decisions are made in consultation with paleontologists. This is implied by some parts of the rules, but in many other areas all that is mentioned is an “authorized officer” (e.g., for decisions related to CT scanning). This is too nebulous for comfort, and is not a positive change from past practice. That’s an easy fix in the wording.

    Are there any areas in the proposed regulations that you would like to see changed or clarified? I.e., if you were to suggest areas where interested parties should comment in addition to general support for the regulations, what would they be?

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  2. Bill Parker says:

    Andy,

    It seems that there some portions of Federal law and policy that needs some clarification. When a law is passed, it is up to the individual agencies to write policy to implement these laws. Often some of the aspects are left purposefully vague to allow flexibility for the agencies. For example when policy states that ‘the approval of the secretary is required’, it does not necessarily mean that the Secretary of Agriculture will personally approve each request, instead it is delegated down as far as the local level. For example if the same policy is enacted by the National Park Service, the individual park superintendents will have this authority (in fact this already exists for destructive analysis). Thus the “authorized officer” will be the one who has responsibility for all federal property at the local level. Again for the NPS this would be the park superintendent who is personally held liable accountable for all federal property at the park level. This would include any fossils from that unit. Remember that all fossils are considered property and that no one in federal agencies has the authority to give them away of sell them to another entity (including partner repositories). There are also many regulations regarding the disposal of federal property. This is why the responsible authority has to approve any destructive analysis or potentially harmful use (e.g., molding).

    In sum, although the term “authorized officer” may sound vague to someone outside of the government, within the government it identifies a specific person who is liable for the management of all property at the local level. In the Forest Service this would probably be the head ranger for the district on which the fossils were recovered. Dealing with property in the federal government is no joke and there are harsh penalties (financial and criminal) for responsible officials who do not deal with property appropriately. This would include giving it away or allowing it to unknowingly be destroyed. This is exactly why approval for casting or histologically sampling fossils has to be given by the responsible agency.

    Bill

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    • Andrew Farke says:

      Thanks, Bill! That is incredibly helpful…for those of us “on the outside,” the meaning of many terms in federal government are hazy. The clarification on responsibility is also good, although I still stand by my statement that decisions on paleontological resources should be made in consultation with paleontologists. The wording is sufficient in the USFS regs when it comes to destructive sampling (authorized officer in consultation with paleontologist)–it just needs to be extended to things like CT data, etc.

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  3. Bill Parker says:

    [Disclosure - I am a vertebrate paleontologist who works for the National Park Service. My stated views are my own and in no way represent the official views of the National Park Service of the federal government].

    Andy,

    I would hope that instead of trying to remove authority from government officials, paleontologists would instead work to educate them on the significance of fossils and the importance of different types of paleontological techniques and study methods. Furthermore, this should be an opportunity for paleontologists to support the new federal regulations and ask them to hire professional staff to implement these new regulations.

    I’ll admit that I was disappointed when I read your initial blog posts in that they seemed to 1) (unintentionally I presume) portray this issue as a battle between paleontologists and government employees, and 2) painted all government employees with the same brush, essentially as know-nothing obstructionists. Indeed in my personal case you are essentially arguing to remove my authority over the fossils I am entrusted to care for and distribute this authority to dozens of individual repositories, some of which are natural history museums with trained paleontologists, but many others which do not possess such qualified staff. Unfortunately I fear that many people who are uninformed on all of the relevant issues regarding federal policy may be bombarding the US Forest Service with form letters rather than offering to partner with them to educate about the significance of vertebrate fossils and the strong need to have more professional paleontologists in the federal ranks. I do hope that I am mistaken in this fear.

    -Bill

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    • Andy Farke says:

      I was deeply distressed to read your reaction to some of what I have written, particularly because you are someone I respect greatly as a scientist, colleague, and yes, federal paleontologist. I apologize for giving the impression that I do not respect the work you and other paleontologists in the federal system do. This was never my intent, nor is it my true feeling. I feel quite bad that some of what I wrote can be read otherwise.

      I _am_ still worried about wording in the proposed regulations that implies some decisions could be made without consultation of agency paleontologists (e.g., decisions on replication of fossils). I appreciate your clarification on how “authorized official” plays out in the day to day, but sincerely hope that the regulations are written to specify input from an agency paleontologist. This would provide additional support for an increase in the number of federal paleontologists, in that it shows more areas where their expertise is necessary. In my view, there is little traction for requesting more staff unless the need for agency paleontologist input is explicitly stated throughout the regulations. As such, the phrase appears only four times, twice in reference to consumptive sampling and twice in reference to determining fossil resources. I should add this doesn’t mean I think authorized officials are out to get museums–these officials are generally good folks who act in good faith, in my experience–but I would like to see more emphasis on the need for input from paleontologists. This is partly why I have advocated for some decisions remaining with the repositories; I am uncomfortable with wording that does not explicitly put even agency paleontologists into the decision loop. That was really the core of most of my concerns, even if I didn’t express it as elegantly as I should have, particularly in my first post on the topic. My own thoughts on this are evolving, due to the input from those who have commented here.

      The proposed regulations really are a good thing for the most part, and sorely needed for the USFS. I think some in the museum community are a little jumpy because many museums invest considerable resources into caring for federal specimens, with little federal financial support for doing so. We want to do the right thing by the American people, US government, and scientific community, and are deeply passionate about preserving federal fossils. I apologize for making my position sound more adversarial than it actually is…that was not my intent. And for areas where we do differ in opinion, please know that my issue is with the proposed regulations, not with you or your federal colleagues. No matter how the final regulations play out (whether for USFS, or NPS, or BLM, or whatever), I respect the fact that you are required to uphold those regulations and I respect that you do so with good intentions.

      One area that I identify as unclear for most outside of the federal government is how we can communicate our needs and thoughts effectively (exclusive of the comment process for these specific regulations). As I mentioned to a friend who is a federal official, your point about helping to “educate about the significance of vertebrate fossils and the strong need to have more professional paleontologists in the federal ranks” is a good one, but to whom do we communicate this? District official? Congressperson? Secretary? I absolutely want to do my part to help out there (as well as communicate the dire need for more support towards the repositories), but want to make sure that my concerns reach the right people. Particularly, how can we do so effectively in an era of federal austerity measures?

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  4. Matt Smith says:

    Hi Andy,

    I’m the collections manager at Petrified Forest National Park, I’ve had the pleasure of working with Bill for a few years now, and Mr. Brown on several occasions. I’ve worked on and off with the federal government since 1998 but also for university and private museums as well. One thing that Bill alluded to that I would like to expand on is that the Department of the Interior and Department of Agriculture museum systems have many partners who are not in the business of research that are currently in possession of paleontology specimens. For instance I have active loans with the Arizona department of transportation, the Holbrook Chamber of Congress, the Winslow Chamber of congress and several other small museums with no paleontologist on staff. The language of any policy has to take into account the potential actions and interests of these partners as well. And the loan forms, prior to specific stipulations made by the responsible authorities at a given park, have to be of a fairly generic nature as well. However as with any good loan or research permit there are usually specifics research interests set forth at the very beginning of the process. If you were to come to the park and ask to borrow specimens and were clear about your interest in isotopic or histological sampling, or display for that matter, those permissions would be obtained right from the outset. Clear research proposals with specific goals are key to speeding things along. Or, you could partner with us and request us to do the initial work on our thin sectioning equipment.

    Long term storage on the other hand has to have strict controls as well. Obviously, the lifetime of these loans or repository agreements are often longer than our own and although I may have the utmost confidence in your judgement. I have no way to evaluate the judgement of people in our positions several decades from now. Things change and sometimes not for the best.

    Luckily at Petrified Forest we currently have staff that can make those decisions in house and then we can get permission from our superintendent. In my personal opinion this is an ideal situation and one that the paleontology community should encourage in other branches of the federal government.

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    • Andy Farke says:

      Nicely put! Thanks for sharing…Petrified Forest really is a model for how good things can be.

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  5. B. Parker says:

    [Disclosure - I am a vertebrate paleontologist who works for the National Park Service. The opinions stated here are my own and do not represent the official views of the National Park Service or the Federal Goverment].

    Hey Andy,

    This is a very tricky subject and admittedly the best solution is for government agencies to hire more professional paleontologists. Indeed the idea to have the appropriate “authorized official” consult with an agency paleontologist is a good one, but only if there are agency paleontologists to consult with. We are extremely rare and research paleontologists are even scarcer. This needs to change and hopefully the new laws and policy will be the impetus. You asked how to make this happen, and for starters it can be done though comments on proposed policy. Instead I’m afraid that many who have commented so far are instead complaining about having to ask a damn know-nothing fed why they need permission to cut up fossils. This is a moot point because respect and ethics dictate that you consult with the owner of a piece of property before you do something that permanently changes it. Asking for clarification of policy to request that federal agencies consult with paleontologists in these decisions is not a bad idea, but with the understanding that the final decision will still rest with the responsible official.

    It is crucial that paleontologists comment on proposed federal policy and I know that you all meant well and really emphasized the need to read everything carefully, but based on the blog comments many seem focused on the wrong points. The examples from the form letter were very disturbing for a variety of reasons which Matt Brown has adequately addressed. Hopefully there is time to call of the dogs. Instead we need to focus as a community on stronger partnerships and really try to get the federal agencies to the same speed regarding paleontology as they are with archaeology. Of course some of the federal bureaucracy is absolutely maddening and there will be obstructionists, but the way forward is through communication and education. I’m thrilled that you have a strong interest in caring for federal fossils and you are personally someone I feel we could trust to make the right decisions about the handling of federal fossils, but unfortunately as Matt Smith noted not all of our repositories are research institutions or even have paleontologists on staff. Our policy needs to encompass these entities as well. We are tasked with many objectives of which only one is research.

    Regarding federal funding to partner repositories…I cannot speak officially for the federal government at all but what is frustrating on this side is that in many cases (not all) the repository itself initially requested the permit for permission to make these collections, to serve as the repository, and benefit from the research potential of these collections. It is not as though the government consistently thrusts these collections onto institutions; quite the opposite, I’ve had institutions cancel their permits because we would not make them a permanent repository. The rub is that by law we do not have the authority to transfer ownership of these collections, nor do we get the appropriations from Congress to pay to support these collections. Federal paleontologists bear the brunt of the ire of this issue from the repositories, but in truth this is an issue that needs to be brought up with Congress as they are the only entity with the power to transfer federal property and to provide funding for the long term care of collections.

    regards,

    Bill

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