Paleontology and Public Lands

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Access, permits, and potential land use conflicts

For scientists, geoscientists and paleontologists in particular, access to public lands is crucial. This table illustrates who is allowed to access federal public lands, the permits and expertise required to use them, and whether or not public lands are open to commercial development for any number of applications. The agencies represented here manage more than 97% of all federal land, with the remaining parcels managed by a plethora of other federal entities.

Casual or amateur collecting is considered hobby collecting, meaning that it is only intended for personal use; items collected may not be sold. These specimens can be collected in reasonable amounts, or those that could be displayed or stored in an individual’s home. As such, lands that allow casual collecting are open to the general public. Meanwhile, scientific collecting necessitates an affiliation with an organization, detailed explanations and methodology for the work being conducted, and identified repositories for collected fossils to be deposited.

Geoscience Currents, Data Brief 2019-006. Table 1: Regulations for Collection, Research and Land Use on Federal Lands (credit: AGI Geoscience Workforce Program)

Geoscience Currents, Data Brief 2019-006. Chart 1: Federal land acreage by goverment agency (credit: AGI Geoscience Workforce Program)

The juxtaposition of casual, scientific, and commercial use is intended to provoke thought around the prioritization for science or commercial industry. When these two are placed in conflict of most types of public land, theoretically the Potential Fossil Yield Classification is used by the Bureau of Land Management to evaluate the potential impacts of the proposed activities on paleontological resources. Should the proposed land be ranked 3, 4, or 5 (most likely to contain significant fossil yields), the project must conduct further mitigation measures to prevent damage to paleontological resources. However, there is little precedent of consequences enacted against commercial entities that did not fully comply with those assessment and mitigation actions.

This document utilizes information that is publicly avail­able through government publications and resources. If you have had a different experience working with these government agencies, please contact Sophie Hanson at

This research was supported by a grant from the Paleonto­logical Society to AGI for a summer policy internship.

Links to additional resources by federal agency

Bureau of Land Management

Forest Service

Fish and Wildlife Service

National Park Service

Department of Defense

Bureau of Reclamation

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