Tuesday, March 31, 2009

 

Criminalizing Fossil Collecting on Federal Lands---Carelessly

The American Spectator has a good article on the shockingly bad Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 just passed with little public attention under special parliamentary procedures in Congress that, for example, bypassed the Ag and Judiciary committees. Among other things, it seems it makes fossil collecting on federal lands a crime.

House leaders skipped entirely the jurisdiction of two relevant committees: Agriculture, which has jurisdiction over the U.S. Forest Service, which is actually a part of the Department of Agriculture; and Judiciary, which has jurisdiction over bills that create or make changes to the nation's federal crimes. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., was so upset he became one of four Democrats to vote against the bill of his own leadership. And serious reservations were also expressed by the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee -- that notorious Blue Dog (Not!) John Conyers, D-Mich. And none other than the American Civil Liberties Union signed a bipartisan letter protesting the criminal penalties in the bill's provisions regarding "paleontological resources preservation."

This section, in the name of protecting fossils on federal lands, makes it a crime to "excavate, remove, damage, or otherwise alter or deface or attempt to excavate, remove, damage, or otherwise alter or deface any paleontological resources located on Federal land" without special permission from the government. Penalties for violations include up to five years imprisonment, and "paleontological resources" are loosely defined as all "fossilized remains…that are of paleontological interest and that provide information about the history of life on earth."

"Paleontological resources" are defined so broadly and the offenses defined so loosely that many fossil lovers -- from scientists to amateur rock collectors -- became concerned that it would criminalize innocent error. After all, many common fossil rocks could be "of paleontological interest" and "provide information about the history of life on earth." Tracie Bennitt, president of the Association of Applied Paleontological Sciences, wrote that "we can visualize now a group of students unknowingly crossing over an invisible line and ending up handcuffed and prosecuted. An honest mistake is just that and should be treated accordingly."

As word spread of these provisions, this association was later joined in this objection by CEI, NCPPR, and two groups that don't normally sign on to letters with free-market organizations about lands bills -- the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the ACLU! "We are concerned that the bill creates many new federal crimes using language that is so broad that the provisions could cover innocent human error," the letter from the diverse coalitions stated. "Above all, we are concerned that a bill containing new federal crimes, fines and imprisonment, and forfeiture provisions may come to the House floor without first being marked up in the House Judiciary Committee."

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