SHERIDAN — Fossils, flowers, petrified wood and plants: If we’re lucky, we’ll come across these treasures outside, but what can we reasonably collect — and what needs to remain outdoors to preserve the environment?
This summer, experts agree that recreationalists should use care when collecting around Wyoming, as federal, state and private lands are governed by different rules.
“All plants and animals are protected in national and state parks and national wildlife refuges,” Gregory K. Brown, professor of Botany at the University of Wyoming said.
In most areas owned by the Bureau of Land Management, though, small amounts of plants, plant parts, seeds, flowers and berries may be collected for personal use. Species listed as threatened or endangered are protected by the federal government and may not be collected without permit, according to the BLM. Collection of species listed as sensitive or candidates for threatened or endangered status should also be avoided.
Other organizations advocate for taking nothing at all. Principle Four by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics reads simply, “Leave What You Find.”
Picking a few flowers does not seem like it would have a great impact, but when every visitor has the same thought, the impact can be significant, according to the Leave No Trace Center. Leave No Trace suggests sketching, photographing and leaving flora and artifacts behind. Leave No Trace also advises that people leave natural objects like antlers, petrified wood or colored rocks behind to add to “the mood of the backcountry.”
However, on most public lands, state wildlife laws allow for the taking of small amounts of flora or fauna, according to Brown. On Forest Service and BLM lands, for example, campers can buy permits for cutting firewood or collecting plants for personal use.
With the exception of lands administered by the National Park Service, invertebrate fossils, rocks, plants, fruits and berries may be collected for personal use on most public lands, Brown said, but for specific rules, it’s always best to consult the appropriate agency.
Signs of ancient cultures can be found on public lands in form of ruins, petroglyphs and broken pottery fragments, and especially in Wyoming, according to the Public Lands Interpretive Association. To many peoples, these sites have great significance, often religious.
“Admire the ruins if you come across them, marvel at those people who lived in often inhospitable environments, ponder our common humanity, but leave everything where it is,” the PLIA says. “To do otherwise is not only disrespectful but also against the law.”
Similarly, removal of vertebrate fossils or bones is not allowed without special permits, though many fossils of large and small vertebrates exist on public lands, discovered and undiscovered. Invertebrate fossils may be collected for personal use, but in national parks and developed recreation sites, collecting is prohibited.
According to Mark Clementz, director of the UW Geological Museum at the University of Wyoming, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology has done an excellent job creating guidelines for amateur collecting. When it comes to collecting fossils on federal lands, Clementz points people to the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act, which gives permission to collect for specific scientific, educational and recreational intents.
“It does not permit commercial collecting,” Clementz said, but the SVP reminds collectors that fossils are for everyone—children and adults, amateur and professional paleontologists, and that even the amatuer collector should consider leaving artifacts in place or alerting proper agencies.
“From fossils we learn about the history of life, but much of the story is yet to be written. Fossils from public lands are an educational and scientific resource for our generation and those yet to come. Scientifically significant fossils on federal lands belong to all the people of the United States. They should not be removed from the public domain, but preserved for the enjoyment and education of all Americans for all time,” the SVP says.
When it comes to collecting on private lands, the rules are different.
“For fossils on private property, access to and collection of fossils would be at the discretion of the land owner,” Clementz said. “Federal and state regulations do not apply to private property, so people may collect fossils, minerals and artifacts on this property, as long as the land owner has given them permission to do so.”