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Dinosaur bill concerns outdated fossil digging laws

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BOSTON – There’s a problem brewing just below the surface and the main topics are really, really old.

Archaeologists, paleontologists and geologists are calling on the legislature to introduce a bill that they believe would help clarify outdated and vague laws regarding the recovery, study and protection of fossils and artefacts. The surge follows a spike in popularity around fossil research in Massachusetts following the campaign to create an official state dinosaur.

A poll to decide which dinosaur would occupy the official place in law by Representative Jack Patrick Lewis garnered more than 35,000 votes and even nationwide media coverage. As part of this project, experts and lawmakers hope to raise awareness of all the different scientific fields that have points of contact with the recovery and preservation of artefacts.

Barnas Monteith, president of the Massachusetts State Science and Engineering Fair and paleontologist, was involved in the state’s dinosaur initiative. The attention is good, he said, but there is a side effect to the popularity: a concern among professionals that “a lot of people are going to go out there, potentially start digging, and most likely could find. important specimens in our state. “

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“While we love this idea, obviously we encourage people to find and report things, we are concerned that some people may be able to go out there and try to personally collect fossils and keep them in their private collections. “, did he declare. . “In Massachusetts we obviously don’t have too many dinosaurs floating around in our state, and because of that it’s kind of important to preserve and study these specimens.”

This undated artist's rendering provided by the National Geographic Society shows a hadrosaur as scientists believe it would have been.

Monteith and other experts hope the Legislature will pass a bill (H 3982) introduced by Representative Daniel Carey setting up a commission to review laws and consult with public and private experts to determine how to protect and provide adequate public and professional access. to the archaeological, geological and fossil resources of the State.

Alfred Venne of the Amherst College Beneski Museum of Natural History and Bassett Planetarium contributed to the state’s dinosaur initiative. He said one of the first questions he was asked in the process was where people can find fossils of the state’s potential dinosaur.

“A shiver ran through my spine, oh, my God, well, we’ve got to make sure that people are doing it right and that we don’t just say, ‘Oh, well, the original fossils have been found. on the street, around the corner, around here, so start digging, ”he said. “In our world, we preserve the locations and the integrity of those locations, whether for archaeological or scientific reasons, and we try not to just make it sort of free, so to speak.”

Mark McMenamin, a geologist and paleontologist specializing in the origin of animals and the Cambrian Explosion, said laws regarding the preservation, ownership and protection of fossils need updating.

“It’s confusing, both for those who want the resources to be protected and for those who want to recover and study the resources, because the legal way to do this is not entirely clear,” McMenamin said in an interview. “This will therefore be a great opportunity to clarify the laws, which will both protect resources and also encourage their exposure.”

Members of the commission would include four lawmakers whose districts have significant fossil, archaeological or geological deposits, the state geologist and nine governor appointees, among others. The commission is expected to file a report with the Legislative Assembly by November 1, 2022.

“It would create a commission to really review our current laws on these matters. It looks like a lot of them are outdated as technologies have changed.” “Carey, of Easthampton, told the News Service. hasn’t put a magnifying glass on it for a very long time. “

The legislation is a resumption of a proposal by former Rep. Peter Kocot, who tabled it several times during his tenure in the House from 2002 to 2018. In 2016, the bill went to hearings initials of the committee and was reported by the House Ways and Means Committee.

The House referred Carey’s bill to the Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture on Monday — the legislation has already been favorably reported by the committee every four times Kocot tabled it . A hearing date has yet to be set for Carey’s Bill.

State laws, McMenamin said, primarily prioritize the owner of the land where the artifact is located. But it is not entirely clear from the laws whether the landowner can excavate his own land without permission and whether he needs permission, it is not clear who grants it. , said McMenamin.

“For example, should you ask the state archaeologist for permission to dig a paleontological dig? It’s not entirely clear. So we need some clarity. And just some clear guidelines on how to proceed, “he said. “This is not just an academic exercise, as we are falling behind other countries like China in bringing quality material out below the Earth’s surface and learning more about it. the local history of the Earth. “

Another concern is how to crack down on potential fossil poachers, the people who search for valuable artifacts and sell them online.

Take a dinosaur trail – a series of fossilized footprints from the same animal. Venne said that there are actually two enforcement actions associated with pilfering a trail: trespassing or theft of a stone, a colonial-era law that prohibits the removal or destruction of a stone wall punishable by a fine of $ 10.

The fines associated with violating these laws do not outweigh the potential financial gains from finding significant artifacts and selling them, Venne said.

“You don’t have a bite when it comes to their value,” he said. “So because this is just rock theft and trespassing, if someone loots a lead, you will find that the fines incurred are far outweighed by the ability to put it on eBay. “

When it comes to enacting new laws, Monteith said, the idea “is not to hit everyone” and discourage exploration. Instead, experts seek to create an environment where people can go out and find artifacts with a degree of knowledge and resources made available to them by the state.

“We want to make sure that people catalog things primarily on their phones, primarily take pictures with their iPhones and tag them with a GPS position, and maybe leave natural markers behind,” he said. “… But generally speaking, we want people not to be disturbed by the sites. And we want people to kind of try to remember where they saw a really important fossil, if they found any. one, and they can find this place. “


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