Sunday, June 30, 2013

A New Guinea State of Mind

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I have to admit that twice I’ve tried and failed to make my way through Alfred Russel Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago (1869), considered one of the classic accounts of personal and scientific discovery in natural history and ranked, by many, with Darwin’s seminal work The Voyage of The Beagle (1839) (sadly, another tome I’ve only managed to dip into at random).  So, for me, the only false notes in Vojtech Novotny’s Notebooks From New Guinea:  Fieldnotes of a Tropical Biologist (2009) (translated from the Czech by David Short) were found in the following sentence:
Since the times of Alfred Russell [sic] Wallace, whose un-put-downable The Malay Archipelago (1869) can be read as both a thrilling travelogue and a work of serious scholarship, the literary skills of the scientific community have witnessed a conspicuous downturn.  (p. 163)
Setting aside his stumble over Wallace’s oft misspelled middle name and his infelicitous description of The Malay Archipelago (I blame the actual word choice, but not the sentiment, on translator Short), my primary objection is to Novotny’s assertion about the decline in the literary skills of his community.

He’s wrong; his own book is proof of that.  Notebooks From New Guinea is a little gem.  A collection of brief, true accounts of doing biological research in New Guinea, it can be funny, sad, or shocking, sometimes all three in the same tale.  Often with witty, though understated, quips, Novotny explores some of the myriad culture clashes witnessed and experienced by a Western scientist in New Guinea – clashes of the New Guinean with modern society, one island tribe with another, the New Guinean with science, the West with science, the amateur scientist with the professional, the conservationist with the developer, the urban with the rural, the believer with the unbeliever . . . .  Above all, it’s about how all of these various groups (tribes) view nature.

Novotny is head of the Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology at the Czech Academy of Sciences, and Director of the New Guinea Binatang Research Center (Papua New Guinea).  Woven through the book is his account of establishing and running biological research centers on the island to study forest ecology, specifically the interplay of insect and plants in the tropical rain forest.

He asserts at the outset, “Isolation is a magnificent generator of diversity.”  (p. 13)  Just as New Guinea’s geography with its forests, rivers, swamps, mountains, and “even a little glacier,” may be responsible for its rich diversity of animal and plant life, that same fragmentation of the landscape has given rise to a multiplicity of tribe-based cultures.  With only a minute fraction (a thousandth) of the world’s population, New Guinea has a sixth of the world’s languages.  The cultural diversity on the island is under attack by the inexorable spread of technologically driven modern society.  As the isolation among tribes breaks down, enemies are brought into greater contact, cultural traditions are challenged, and the languages spoken by small groups die.

So, it is perhaps not surprising that a streak of violence run through life in New Guinea.  Island tribes at war with each other have been a fact of life.  Cannibalism has become a thing of the past, but only recently.  Then there is the phenomenon of the even number of fatalities likely to occur from individual traffic accidents in New Guinea.  A driver in New Guinea operates under two legal systems – one derived from the British and one based on tribal custom.  After an accident in which a driver kills someone in a traffic accident, under the British system, the driver may end up in a court of law, while under the tribal one, the driver will end up dead at the hands of the relatives of the deceased.  (p. 99)  In typical fashion, Novotny wryly notes that there may be some benefits from this dual process.  Drivers in New Guinea are extremely solicitous about the safety of their passengers and others on the road, and such “legal” proceedings might, he suggests, improve traffic safety in the Czech Republic.

There is little idyllic about life in New Guinea as depicted by Novotny.  Malaria is a fact of life.  Scattered throughout the book are brief passages set off and titled individually as “Malaria Intermezzo.”  In them, he describes his harrowing experiences with malaria.  These are sobering, not amusing.  For the foreigner spending any length of time on the island, it would appear that the question isn’t whether, but when he or she will contract the disease.

A recurrent theme in the book is that, while outsiders often disparage the choices made by New Guineans and presume to know what is best for them, these same outsiders are blind to their own naiveté and absurd choices.  Consider Novotny’s stories about tribes being approached by foreign corporations looking to extract lumber from the forests.  He describes one encounter in which the representatives of a “foreign conglomerate dedicated to felling and removing timber” flew in to make their pitch to a tribal village only to encounter well-informed natives, not the gullible innocents they expected.  This time the corporations failed because New Guinean and foreign conservationists had gotten there first.  Novotny draws a fascinating lesson out of this encounter.  Though the conservationists’ methods may have been more above board than those of the foreign corporation representatives, both groups were trying to manipulate the natives, substituting their judgment for the villagers’.  He addresses his readers:
If you have some sympathy with naive villagers deep in the jungle, whose major decisions are influenced by éminences grises, be aware that your own situation is no different.  Whether it’s GM [genetically modified] crops, nuclear energy, cloning, or global warming public opinion is ever subject to the competing influences of intensively competitive bodies of experts.  Believe me, I know, I’m one of them.  (p. 134)
Or take the matter of the spirits believed by many New Guineans to inhabit the country and which the New Guinean is likely to want to propitiate, much to the amusement of the Westerner.  Karkar, an island near the northern coat of New Guinea, is essentially a volcanic cone.  The island population maintains a strong belief in spirits which are likely to be found in particularly great numbers near the crater at the center of the island.  The locals warn outsiders looking to climb to the crater about the peril they face from the dangerous island spirits.  When two tourists venturing up to the crater died, “the villagers were in no doubt as to the reason:  the spirits really don’t like intruders.”  But, notes Novotny,
It really is advisable to observe the rules of etiquette vis-à-vis the spirits since their influence can even be demonstrated by strictly scientific, quantitative statistical analysis.  This reveals that the accident rate among white men, who are generally skeptical as to the existence of spirits, is conspicuously higher than among the aboriginal population.
If you still don’t believe in spirits, you would be advised to avoid Karkar.  There can be no greater ignominy for an enlightened rationalist than to perish in consequence of some incident involving spirits.  (p. 71)
Aspects of modern life may puzzle or startle New Guineans according to Novotny.  When a group of New Guineans traveling in Australia came upon a group of homeless people in Sydney, the cameras emerged as the New Guineans sought “to take photos of [the homeless] as particularly exotic specimens of a recently discovered species of animal.”  (p. 42)  With their extended family relationships and tribal identities, the New Guineans literally had never encountered a homeless person, much less a neglected orphan, or a neglected senior.  Novotny writes, “Nowhere have I seen the mentally or physically incapacitated so naturally integrated into society as in the villages of New Guinea.”  (p. 42)  In one of his wonderfully unexpected takes on an issue, Novotny adds that life in a New Guinean village, where everyone knows you and everything about you,
. . . leads me almost straight to the conjecture that what has driven great migrations, conquests, voyages of discovery, urbanization, and various developments in technology that have released people from dependence on the land is not so much the search for new economic opportunities as headlong flight from kith and kin.  (p. 43)
Science is what drew Novotny to New Guinea, but, “[s]cience as understood in the West – the obsessive accumulation of all manner of facts, including the totally useless – is a novelty in Papua New Guinea and is still looking for a wider circle of acolytes.”  (p. 163)  What matters to the Westerner and what matters to the New Guinean may be very different things.  One small research station set up in a village failed because what the funders wanted from it – biological research – wasn’t what the villagers wanted – prestige.
The main concern of our colleagues in Simbu was to impress visitors and the neighbors.  To that end all they needed were the outward symbols of a microscope and a laptop and their first-fruit sample insect collections.  No subsequent work could improve on this state of affairs so it finally came to an end.  (p 167)
Still, Novotny has performed important research on the island.  His careful study of the insects living in the tropical forest has formed the basis for a downward revision in the estimate of the number of insect species in the world.  The reason for this reduction?  Blame “tourist” insects or passersby who don’t reside in the local area.  Inventorying the insect species in a small place and extrapolating to a much larger geographic area – say, all of New Guinea or to the world – is like “counting pedestrians in Wenceslas Square in Prague, or Piccadilly in London – almost every Praguer, or Londoner, will pass through sooner or later . . . .” (p. 187)  His own work “has led to the mass extinction of hypothetical species, since by this reckoning we share the planet not with thirty, but with no more than four to six million species of insects.”  (p 204)

I cannot leave the book without mentioning the central role that airplanes appear to play in the life of many New Guineans.  Clearly, in a country with many isolated villages, reachable by land vehicles only with great difficulty, if at all, air travel is likely to be viewed as something of a miracle, and an airstrip as a vital necessity for any right thinking village.  “With its three hundred airports, airfields, and airstrips to a population of six million souls Papua New Guinea is one of the world’s leaders in aviation.”  But those airstrips are mostly problematic, often blocked by people or pigs or dogs or wild animals or birds or “flying foxes” or tall grass or flooding or fog or . . . .  (p. 35)  Add lack of imagination to that list.

This desire for airplanes to make an appearance is wrapped up in a cargo cult shared by many New Guinean natives who assume that airplane cargo has a “supernatural origin” and so can be invoked by the same rituals they see others performing who have been blessed with the arrival of cargo.  “One commonly cited example is the imitation airstrips in the middle of the jungle, around which the natives sit in an improvised control tower with half coconuts clamped to their ears in lieu of radio earphones, awaiting the arrival of planes laden with cargo."  (p. 218)

Lest, his Western readers laugh too hard at that image, Novotny posits that Czech science, as a product of many years behind the Iron Curtain, has its own cargo cult in which a scientist who has
no understanding of anything, yet practices all the rituals of research forever measuring something then publishing something about it, not to mention sitting about in front of instruments, wearing a lab coat and supplying expert opinions in the hope that one day, out of the blue, scientific discoveries will present themselves, duly summoned up by these rituals . . . .  (p. 218-219)
I suspect this observation applies to elements in other scientific communities, as well.

A final note regarding Alfred Russel Wallace and New Guinea.  Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago offers a single chapter on his stay on New Guinea from March to July, 1858.  It is a depressing read because, for Wallace, it was a most dreary period marked by illness – an ulcer on his ankle that kept him confined to his house for a month, followed by a fever which laid him low for a week, and then soreness of his mouth, gums, and tongue which made eating painful – and by little luck collecting specimens. He also had no fondness for the natives, and it rained a lot.  Upon leaving New Guinea, Wallace observed that he left “without much regret for in no place which I have visited have I encountered more privations and annoyances.” (p. 388)

When it comes to New Guinea, Novotny is clearly a much better companion than Wallace.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

A Student of Natural History at War

The Civil War broke out at a time in U.S. history when many in the society had a passionate interest in natural history.  Even during the war, soldiers collected fossils, rocks, and other specimens from the land where they camped, marched, and fought.  Over the past couple of years, I have been in search of accounts of these activities, but, until recently, I never quite realized the risk I ran in doing so.  The risk became clear when I read Isaac Lyman Taylor’s Civil War diary.

The diary was published in four issues of Minnesota History (Vol. 25) in 1944.  Links to each portion of the diary can be found at the Minnesota Historical Society’s Library page (scroll down to an entry titled Campaigning with the First Minnesota:  A Civil War Diary).

Before enlisting at age 24, Taylor, who studied science at Burlington University (Iowa), had been a school teacher, first in Illinois and then in Belle Prairie, Minnesota, at a school for Chippewa Indians, replacing his younger brother, Patrick Henry (“Henry” or “P.H.”), who’d left that teaching position to enlist in the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment.  Isaac soon followed Henry into the First Minnesota Volunteers, enlisting on August 21, 1861, in Company E, the same company in which his brother served.  (Biographical information on the Isaac is drawn from Hazel C. Wolf’s introduction to the first installment of Taylor’s diary (she edited each article that appeared in Minnesota History), and The Last Full Measure:  The Life and Death of the First Minnesota Volunteers by Richard Moe (1993).)

The First Minnesota would fight in nearly all of the major battles in the East, including the two Bull Runs, the Peninsula Campaign around Richmond, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg.  It is one of those storied military units that is celebrated for its constant bravery under fire and, specifically, for its actions at Gettysburg (more on that later).

Taylor’s diary, written in three separate volumes, does not begin until New Year’s 1862, several months after he first experienced combat.  He typically wrote relatively short entries, describing succinctly his health, the weather, and what he did during that day.  He often added commentary on the state of the war which he followed closely, the army’s leadership which he didn’t hesitate to skewer, and the doings of the political system which often brought out his disgust.  The tone, the style, and the syntax of his writing are fresh and modern, exhibiting a well developed and endearing sense of irony and sarcasm.  Without question, there was, for Taylor, a humorous vein to be found in life, even in the army or, perhaps, especially in the army.

The opening of the diary sets the tone.  Taylor knew that, if a soldier fell in battle, his diary was at risk of being taken by looters who roamed the battlefield when the shooting stopped.  So, he began each volume of his diary with an appeal to whomever might find it.  The first of those pleas, directed to a Rebel who might come across his body, reads as follows (the spelling, punctuation, and syntax of each entry in the published text are Taylor’s own.):
To Whom It May Concern.
Mr. Secesh;
Please forward this diary to J.H. Taylor, Prairie City, McDonough Co., Illinois.  By so doing you will exhibit your magnanimity, accommodativeness & divers other virtues, beside conferring no small favor on a defunct individual.
Yours Truly,
I.L. Taylor
High Private of Co. E
1st Reg. Minn. Vol.
Even with this somber task, Taylor’s attitude comes through – “conferring no small favor on a defunct individual.”

Isaac Taylor was a man harboring scholarly ambitions with an abiding interest in natural history.  On March 24, 1861, when his unit was in Washington, D.C., he was exploring the city, presumably on some sort of authorized pass.  I use “presumably” advisedly because elsewhere in the diary it’s clear Taylor would sometimes slip away without authorization for a bit of a ramble.
This mornings pape[r] states that Gen. Shields has fought & whipped Jackson near Winchester since we left H’s Ferry.  Visited Smithsonian Institute & Capitol  Took a peep into Senate Chamber & Hall of Representatives & listened to the legislative wisdom of the country.
Interesting choices, in my mind, for how to spend his free time.  And, having come to know Taylor, I believe the phrase “legislative wisdom” could only be dripping with sarcasm.  The picture below, taken by Brady & Company, and reproduced from the Smithsonian Institution Archives, shows the Smithsonian probably as he saw it.  (Though the label on the photograph claims it to be from 1865, that is in error because the building shows no evidence of the damage done by a fire in January, 1865.  Smithsonian archivists suggest that April, 1863, is a more likely date.  The photograph is used under the fair use provisions of copyright law, an action “welcomed” by the Smithsonian.)

The independent Taylor sometimes chaffed at military rules and clearly resented officers who were sticklers for them.  Hence his entry for April 6, 1862:
Put under arrest from guard mount till one P.M. by officer of guard (Lt. [Josias R.] King, Co. A) for not being in ranks at taking of arms.  “Putting on style,” I think, Mr. King.
Officers higher up the chain of command were not spared pointed commentary.  Such as generals who overstepped their authority.  When Union General David Hunter, in charge of the Department of the South, issued a proclamation freeing all of the slaves in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, Taylor wrote in the diary, “What are you up to Mr. Hunter?  Who told you to do that?”  (May 19, 1862)  (Indeed, President Lincoln revoked the proclamation.)  Or generals who “put on style,” such as the one who, for a division drill following the Union defeat at Chancellorsville, had the men wear fatigue caps so they would, according to Taylor, “look ‘putty,’ on parade.” (I think “putty” is a play on “pretty”).  Needless to say this drew Taylor’s ire:
The officers of this army appear to think that show is the grand object while fighting is merely incidental.  I think we have played boy long enough & if we can’t act like men we might as well go home & see “ma.”  (May 19, 1863)
Unauthorized foraging, a practice Taylor clearly embraced, brought out his wit.  “A nice pig generously introduces himself to the guard & is accepted as a martyr to the cause of the Union.”  (November 4, 1862)  “A beef ‘dies’ near our guard house & each of the guard secures a generous piece.  It is a pitty that we can’t find out who killed that steer.”  (November 23, 1862)

The diary records how, when he had a chance, Taylor read.  His reading material ranged from the Bible to newspapers, from American history texts to natural history texts.  Of particular interest to me is the change toward natural history in what he read that eventually took place following lectures on geology delivered by the unit’s chaplain, F.A. Conwell.  The first lecture, noted in Taylor’s diary, was on December 3, 1862, when the Union Army was assembled around Fredericksburg; the second was on December 28th, two weeks after the disastrous Union assaults on the Confederate lines on the heights behind Fredericksburg.

Lectures on geology?  In the midst of combat?  In due course, Taylor’s reading specifically embraced geology.  On February 17, 1863, with the unit still in Virginia, Taylor ordered the Outline of the Geology of the Globe, and of the United States in Particular from a New York bookseller.  Written by preeminent American geologist Edward Hitchcock in 1853, the book was a sequel to his Elementary Geology which Taylor also ordered on March 14.

(An aside:  Among the fascinating aspects of Taylor’s gathering of books to feed his appetite for natural history is how quickly his book orders were filled.  Each order for these geology books was sent from the field in Virginia to a New York bookseller.  In each instance, it took only a bit more than three weeks for the books to reach Taylor.  I am floored at that.  When he ordered “Wood’s Botany” (presumably A Class-Book of Botany by Alphonso Wood (1851)) from a bookseller in Washington, D.C., while his unit was in the Fredericksburg area, he had it in hand in exactly two weeks (May 27, 1863)!)

Increasingly, Taylor’s diary entries noted that he spent some part of a day “reading geology.”  That Hitchcock’s texts might have been slow going in places is suggested by the entry for April 11, 1863:  “I take a dose of Geology with chess for seasoning.”  Several entries report that he was now “studying geology.”

In the midst of his geology reading, Taylor’s diary now revealed that he was on the hunt, if he hadn’t been before, for specimens to feed his natural history interests.  In April, 1863, the First Minnesota was in the Fredericksburg area, across the Rappahannock River from the city.  His April 29th entry reads in its entirety:
Cloudy – some rain in P.M.  We hear occasional cannonading down river.  It is reported that Sedgwick’s corps (6th) has crossed below.  I send a “specimen” to the Geological Society of Prairie City Academy.  On camp guard.
This took place on the eve of battle.  Sedgwick’s crossing was part of the maneuvering that led to the Union defeat at the Battle of Chancellorsville.

What did you find and send to the Prairie City Academy, Isaac?

Following the battle, geology again occupied some of his time.  He wrote on May 8,
Cloudy & some rain.  Relieved at 9 A.M.  Flag of truce crosses river.  I send a piece of petrified wood to Prof. D[avid] Branch of Prairie City Academy.
That he knew someone at the Academy well enough to send him this specimen (and presumably the specimen noted on the day before) suggests to me that Taylor was probably collecting before this.  If not during the war, then before the war.

Isaac drew Henry into his geological adventures on May 22nd while the unit was still in the Fredericksburg area.
[We] make a geological exploration & find fine examples clayey “concretions” in sandstone.  Yesterday while on “fatigue” I explored about ¼ of a mile of upturned strata containing “joints,” numerous “veins of segregation” etc.
(Armed with the 1862 edition of Hitchcock’s Elementary Geology, I checked out the bit of terminology in Taylor’s description that was new to me – “veins of segregation” – to see what it might have meant to Taylor.  Hitchcock defined them as veins of rock created by a process of segregation when the entire rock mass was still fluid, hence they are of the same age as the surrounding rock (p. 30-31).  At their edges, he wrote, they may appear to fade gradually into the surrounding rock.  It would appear that this terminology is not still in use.  I don’t know what that means about the validity of the concept Hitchcock described.)

The lull ended three weeks later, when the First Minnesota, along with most of the rest of the Union Army, went in pursuit of the Confederate forces that had moved west and then north.

Now books became a burden.  Taylor noted that, on June 14th, he prevailed on someone in Company K to put his geology and botany books in the regiment’s baggage train.  On June 18th, when his unit was relatively near Washington, D.C., he sent the books to “C.C. Coggswell Washington, D.C.”  (Boyd’s Washington and Georgetown Directory for 1864, lists a C.C. Cogswell as a member of the law firm of Pecare, Cogswell, and Jackson.)

And now the race was on in earnest between the two armies.  The First Minnesota left Centreville, Virginia, on June 20th, crossing the Bull Run, and camping at Gainsville.  The next day the unit marched through Haymarket, Virginia, to Thoroughfare Gap in the Bull Run Mountains.

Even while on the move, Taylor found a time and a place right to indulge his natural history interests.
Fair day.  Relieved about noon.  This P.M. I “reconnoitre” about Thorofare Gap & find two old grist mills, a few dwelling houses, Broad Run, highly inclined strata, tortuous lamina, joints, cleavage planes, igneous rocks, bold “crags & peaks” & much magnificent scenery.
If I were a free man I should enjoy a whole day’s ramble in this vicinity, but in these “exciting times” a soldier does not venture very far from camp for fear that something may turn up that requires his presence.  (June 22, 1863)
Exactly 150 years ago this coming Saturday, Isaac Taylor was, I’m convinced, truly relieved, for the moment, of the pressures and anxieties of war by hiking in the Thoroughfare Gap, studying the geology of the place.  He was in the flow.

(I went back to Hitchcock’s Elementary Geology to explore what Taylor might have been describing as “tortuous lamina.”  Hitchcock noted, “A bed or stratum [of rock] is often divided into thin laminae, which bear the same relations to a single bed as that does to the whole series of beds.  This division is called the lamination of the bed; and always results from a mechanical mode of deposition.”  (p. 18)  These laminae may be parallel to plane on which the strata lies, intersecting, and “often they are undulating and tortuous.”)

But the story will play out to its end.  In a few days, the First Minnesota and Taylor will march through Maryland (“The boys are enthusiastic in their admiration of Maryland generally & the nice bread and nice girls in particular.”  June 30th).  They will enter Pennsylvania (“. . . just after passing through the latter place [Harneytown], a citizen tells use we are in Pa.”  July 1st), and stop on the night of the 1st, near Gettysburg, a small town at a crossroads.  As Taylor notes in his diary, “At Taneytown we hear there has been fighting at Gettysburg to day.”

He records the events of the morning of the 2nd:
Arroused at 3 A.M. & ordered to pack up & at 4 A.M. move towards the battle field where we arrive at 5-40 A.M.  Order from Gen. Gibbon read to us in which he says this is to be the great battle of the war & that any soldier leaving the ranks without leave will be instantly put to death.
This is the last entry in the diary in Isaac’s hand.

The next entry, written by his brother Henry, begins:
July 4th 1863  The owner of this Diary was killed by a shell about sunset July 2d 1863 – his face was toward the enemy. . . .
The First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment launched a suicidal charge late on July 2nd, a charge that bought enough precious time for the Union to hold the center of Cemetery Ridge but at an appalling cost.  One assessment concluded that, out of the 262 men who charged a Confederate brigade of 1,700, only 47 were not killed or wounded.  Historian Richard Moe observed that, based on these numbers, in the charge on July 2, 1863, the First Minnesota Volunteers experienced “the highest percentage of casualties suffered by any Union regiment in a single engagement in the entire war.”  (p. 275)

The painting below, by Don Troiani, depicts the First Minnesota during its charge.  (This image is available from Wikimedia Commons and is reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.)

The risk I mentioned at the outset?  Identifying with the author of a diary so deeply that his experiences become your experiences, and his death moves you to tears.  It was a risk I failed to avoid with Isaac Taylor.  Indeed, befriending a soldier whose diary or letters you read may be an “occupational” hazard.  When historian James M. McPherson wanted to know what motivated men on both sides of the Civil War to join in the mortal combat, he read the diaries and letters of over 1,000 soldiers.  After this experience, he observed,
From such writings I have come to know these men better than I know most of my living acquaintances, for in their personal letters written in a time of crisis that might end their lives at any moment they revealed more of their inner selves than we do in our normal everyday lives.  (For Cause and Comrades, 1997, p. viii,  I would add diaries as an avenue to these soldiers’ most personal thoughts.)
And so, I’ll try to imagine that Isaac Taylor is still at Thoroughfare Gap, geologizing and dreaming of a time when the war would be over and he could be fully immersed in the study of natural history.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Forest Service's Proposed Rules for the Paleontological Resources Preservation Legislation ~ Reviving Faded Memories

This post is about things forgotten, remembered, and made easy.

On May 23, 2013, the Forest Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, issued proposed regulations to administer the Paleontological Resources Preservation (PRP) legislation of 2009 across the land it administers.  Public comments in writing will be accepted until July 22, 2013.  Last things first - the public commenting is what's been made easy.  I've never felt strongly enough before about proposed regulations to explore how to submit comments, so it was news to me how simple it is.  It can be done online.  Of course, this probably drives the number of comments up and the quality down.  (We continue to await proposed rules from the Department of the Interior.)

Four years is a long time to wait for these proposed rules, particularly with my faulty memory.  I do recall, though, that back then I was caught up in the intense debate that moved through the ranks of amateur and commercial fossil collectors about the merits of the PRP legislation, which was enacted into law as Subtitle D of Title VI of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 (P.L. 111-11).  (The text of the public law is available in PDF at this site.)  I was (and am) squarely in the camp supporting the legislation.  But, frankly, I'd forgotten much of the angst that surrounded passage of the legislation, and certainly many details had long since slipped my memory.

I do remember my sense that much of the pain and anguish in the amateur paleontology ranks over passage of the PRP legislation was engineered by commercial fossil collecting interests, intent on enlisting amateurs to their cause by suggesting that amateur collecting would fall victim to the legislation, which was simply not true.  Commercial collectors may have opposed the legislation because it was a lost opportunity - it does not open federal lands to commercial collecting in any way.  Indeed, not only does it reiterate in clear terms the prohibition against commercial fossil collecting on federal land from prior law, it also imposes serious penalties on those found to have engaged in illegal collecting.  As for the amateur collectors, the provisions signed into law actually expand the ability of amateurs to engage in what the law calls "casual collecting" (i.e., not for profit or for research) which applies to "common invertebrate and plant paleontological resources."  Prior to its enactment, such casual collecting was permitted only on land under the jurisdiction on the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).  That meant that, technically, collecting without a permit was unlawful on any other Federal land.  Instead, the new legislation allows casual collecting on land administered by the Bureau of Reclamation and the Forest Service, as well as the BLM.  (Restricting casual collecting to common invertebrate and plant fossils simply continues prior law.)  I discussed much of this in a post in December 2008 when the 110th Congress had closed without passing the legislation.

I read the proposed regulations from the Forest Service with interest, but certainly not with the intensity that I would have back then.  For the most part, I found the proposed rules reasonable and tied to the underlying legislation (which is often repeated verbatim).  Still, two areas are of concern to me.  The first is, in my opinion, something critical.  The second reflects how my paleontological interests have changed in the intervening years; this second issue would probably not have registered with me in 2009.  There may be other provisions I should be focused on but, as I say, it's been awhile since I really thought about the new (well, not so new) law.

First, I am struck by the fact that these proposed regulations place the onus squarely on the casual collector for knowing what can and cannot be done under the law.  This provision finds no counterpart in the underlying statute.  In its language governing casual collecting on National Forest System lands, these proposed rules state:
Section 291.11(f) - It is the responsibility of the collecting public to ensure that they are casually collecting in an area that is open to casual collection, and that the materials they collect art subject to casual collection.
The Background section accompanying these proposed regulations in the Federal Register (May 23, 2013, p. 30814) notes:
Information regarding area closures would generally be available from the local district office.
Wait!  Placing the burden for knowing on the amateur collector without any corresponding responsibility for the administering agency doesn't make much sense to me.  Shouldn't there be a requirement or, at least, an acknowledgement, that the Forest Service will take proactive steps to make it widely known what can and cannot be done with regard to casual collecting?  Doesn't the agency have an affirmative responsibility to disseminate information on areas closed to casual collecting?  Even if this is construed as not an appropriate part of these regulations (I would argue it is), shouldn't the Background section of these proposed regs at least make clear that extensive information dissemination will take place?  Does a notice in the local district office really suffice?

This lack of attention to the responsibilities of the administering agency in getting the message out doesn't seem to be limited just to casual collecting.  I don't see anything addressing this issue of information dissemination elsewhere in these proposed regulations.  I think this is an essential aspect of the administration of this legislation, particularly when the criminal penalties (Section 291.34) hinge on an individual having "knowingly" committed a prohibited act, and some of the civil penalties apply to individuals who "knew or should have known" that the paleontological resources in question were removed illegally from National Forest land (Section 291.27(a)).  If information about the provisions of the law is fairly ubiquitous, it might be that much easier to prove that someone knew that what he or she was doing was against the law.

The second element of these proposed regulations that stood out for me was its determination that, as far as the Forest Service would be concerned, "paleontological resources" covered by the proposed regulations would not include microfossils (Section 291.9(d)(3)).  This is of interest to me given my recent focus on microfossils, and I'm not sure how it will actually play out.

The microfossils not considered paleontological resources under these regulations (and so not covered by them), are defined as follows:
Microfossils, including conodonts and invertebrate fossils, but not including vertebrate fossils, that are individually too small to be studied without a microscope.
Sorry, too many "nots" there.  In a nutshell, vertebrate microfossils are covered, all other microfossils are not.

What does this mean in practice?  It certainly would have been hard to apply the proposed rules' definition of "reasonable amount" of common invertebrate and plant paleontological resources that can be casually collected to microfossils.  Particularly problematic would have been the limit of "five specimens of any one fossil kind."  (Section 291.5)  Plus I'm not sure what "fossil kind" means.

But when vertebrate microfossils are covered by the proposed rules, I have to wonder how that's going to work.  Under the proposed rules, as a casual collector, I can remove annually from appropriate areas up to one gallon (volume) or 25 pounds (weight) of material - part of the definition of "reasonable amount" - but, the reality is that, until I examine that material under the microscope, I will have no clue whether I've managed to remove vertebrate microfossils from forest land in violation of PRP.

It does get gray and complicated.  I've been accused of seeing trees and missing the forest.  This may just be another example.
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