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Collect a rock, lose your car

WASHINGTON – A land management bill that swept through the U.S. Senate last month and is headed for a House vote this week punishes rock collectors and paleontologists with arrest and expropriation of their cars and other equipment for even unknowingly disturbing fossils on public land, say critics.

In the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, a “forfeiture” provision would let the government confiscate “all vehicles and equipment of any person” who digs up or removes a rock or a bone from federal land that meets the bill’s broad definition of “paleontological resource,” says a report by Jon Berlau of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

“The seizures could take place even before a person and even if the person didn’t know they were taking or digging up a ‘paleontological resource,” writes Berlau. “And the bill specifically allows the ‘transfer of seized resources’ to ‘federal or non-federal’ institutions, giving the government and some private actors great incentive to egg on the takings.”

Tracie Bennitt, president of the Association of Applied Paleontological Sciences, is protesting the bill’s vague language and severe penalties.

“We can visualize now a group of students unknowingly crossing over an invisible line and ending up handcuffed and prosecuted,” she wrote to members of Congress.

Subtitle D of the bill called the “Paleontological Resources Preservation Act” would make it illegal 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.

“Paleontological resource” is defined in the bill as “any fossilized remains, traces, or imprints of organisms, preserved in or on the earth’s crust, that are of paleontological interest and that provide information about the history of life on earth.” Penalties for violations include up to five years in jail.

Berlau believes picking up rocks could be interpreted as a violation of the law since most would fit the broad definition under the law.

The forfeiture provision is effective before a trial and conviction, making the defendant guilty until proven innocent, Berlau suggests.

Berlau believes the House will take up a vote on the bill this week. He is urging Americans to contact representatives before the bill, known both as S. 22 and the “Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009” is approved, as expected, and heads to the White House for President Obama’s signature.