Monday, February 26, 2018

Reducing a Monument - On the Ground Question

So the past two months have been super hectic, and the last week even more so. Between proposing monument management plans, BLM permit reports getting wrapped up, research, media, and of course my actual day job that pays my bills I feel like I haven't had a chance to get my feet under me and write. Fielding these media questions, though, has helped focus some of the thoughts going through my head. I generally, in my media discussions, tend to steer away from politics and focus on the science which might make for boring copy but keeps my employers happy. Anyway, one of the Frequently Asked Questions I've been getting from the Post, VICE, Salt Lake Tribune, Washington Post, National Geographic, and all the other outlets is, "what does removing the monument actually do?" That's a multi-faceted question without a super-easy answer, but I think it is worth tackling on multiple levels. Today, what that means from the standpoint of a monument without a monument management plan. This is kinda dry, but important. Please bear with me as we dive into the resource management aspect of this.

DISCLAIMER: I am not a lawyer nor do I play one on TV. I am not a land manager either, nor do I speak for any of them. This is just the way I am seeing things and interpreting the various laws.

To begin with, fossils have been widely protected across all public lands under the Antiquities Act of 1906 as "objects of antiquity," but are not explicitly called out in the law, so this protection has been up to some interpretation over the years. In any case it has been understood that for over 100 years fossil remains have some sort of "special" status beyond that of mere rocks or geological oddities.

The next major piece of legislation is the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979, and it has been widely mentioned in media recently (especially from the vantage point of those looking to defend the reductions). Interestingly, ARPA specifically excludes fossils from protection. From ARPA, 16 U.S.C. 470bb, Definitions, Section 3" Nonfossilized and fossilized paleontological specimens, or any portion or piece thereof, shall not be considered archaeological resources, under the regulations under this paragraph, unless found in an archaeological context. No item shall be treated as an archaeological resource under regulations under this paragraph unless such item is at least 100 years of age."

Legislatively the most recent thing, the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act of 2009 does lay out specific protections and rules for fossils, including vertebrates, invertebrates, and plants. Each land management agency is tasked with coming up with PRPA-compliant management plan. Under PRPA, casual collection of invertebrate and plant fossils found on the surface is allowed from public. The collection of vertebrate fossils requires a permit.

The two biggest issues, in terms of actual on-the-ground protection right now (instead of in a decade when there is a Monument Management Plan implemented and in the FR) is that some fossils are indeed no longer protected when a monument's boundaries are shrunk; specifically plant and invertebrate fossils (which are really important for interpreting the ancient environment and can be highly significant in and of themselves). Anyone can legally collect those now, whereas in the 2016 proclamation it said, " Warning is hereby given to all unauthorized persons not to appropriate, injure, destroy, or remove any feature of the monument and not to locate or settle upon any of the lands thereof." Those items were protected from collection then, and now they are not. Additionally the monument provides protection from development (specifically commercial development), whereas multi-use BLM lands require monitoring and mitigation of projects (roads, powerlines, mining, hiking trails, etc.) that might disturb fossil resources. The fossils do not have the same level of protection on multi-use BLM lands as they do as "objects to be conserved" in a monument where they are an explicit priority for management.

Is it accurate to say that fossils have lost protections under the Trump proclamations? Yes. Some fossils are explicitly no longer protected in any substantive way (such as invertebrate fossils and plants), while others (vertebrates) retain their PRPA protections but don't enjoy a special status among the other possible uses for the land. So all fossils from an excluded area lose some protections, and some fossils lose virtually all of their protections. That nuance has been lost in many of the articles that have come out about some of our BENM work recently so I figured I would put this out there and hope that maybe those of you who are interested will find this post educational.

Monday, December 4, 2017

A Righteous Burning Anger

A view towards the Bears Ears from land cut from Bears Ears National Monument
So here we are. Some seven months after my last post and the sky has started to fall. In a massive in-and-out trip, President Trump flew into Salt Lake City and after mispronouncing "Grand Staircase-Escalante," he announced that he would be signing two executive orders to modify the boundaries of both GSENM and Bears Ears National Monument. After invoking god and promising to have cattle grazing on the land (which they already do!), Trump flew back to the East Coast to hide in Trump Tower or the White House or some underground bunker with floor-to-ceiling Twitter streams without ever visiting the lands which he just mauled like a rabid wolverine.

The proclamation modifying GSENM recognizes the importance of fossil resources to the monument and at least pays lip service to protecting those resources (though the reality on the ground is a bit different). I will leave the detailed explanations of those fossils and how these cuts damage them to others who have worked extensively in the area; folks like Josh Lively, Joe Sertich, and the late Mike Getty (who no doubt is spinning in his grave and spewing hellfire at the monsters responsible for this abomination).

The proclamation abolishing BENM and establishing two new monuments, however, is a completely different story. As stunningly moronic as it is reprehensible, the proclamation showcases a complete lack of understanding of both basic geology and the resources. Contradicting the GSENM modification, the BENM modification claims that paleo is now well protected all over, despite clear evidence to the contrary. The proclamation then goes on to say, "East of the Bears Ears is Arch Canyon, within which paleontologists have found numerous fossils from the Permian and Upper Permian eras." This statement is complete nonsense, as there is no Permian or Upper Permian era (the Upper Permian is a division of the Permian Period), and there are no fossils known from Arch Canyon (as I have previously discussed). The stunning ignorance of just this one statement is echoed elsewhere in this awful steaming pile of rubbish.

Expect more posts about this before the end of the year. I am furious right now. This righteous, burning anger will fuel my actions going forward. I'm not only not giving up, I'm going to help strike back. You should too. Join and donate to the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. Write your representative or senator, especially regarding the insidious HR 3990 that attempts to abolish the Antiquities Act as we know it. Bombard the Department of the Interior with letters and calls, but remember that the folks on the ground, doing day-to-day management are not the ones who your anger should be directed at. They are trying their best to do their job in a horrible and uncertain situation. Aim your fury at those sitting back in Washington D.C.

Remember this too: if you voted for Trump, you voted for this. You directly enabled this. I don't want to hear your half hearted apologies about how you don't agree with everything he does or whatever milquetoast platitudes you try to offer me. Trump and his people wrote a proclamation that basically says that I'm an idiot and none of my life's work matters. Let that sink in.

We all knew something like this was coming. We hoped for an asteroid or an outbreak of common sense, but neither happened. Now we rise like lions, or are lost like lambs. Rise.

"This court case will be like a Roe vs. Wade for monuments." - Jessica Ugelsich

A small part of a massive fossil bed, possibly one of the most important in the state of Utah, now cut from BENM

Saturday, May 20, 2017

National Monuments, Paleo, and the Future

So Bears Ears is back in the news, along with every other national monument created under the Antiquities Act of 1906 for the last 21 years. Despite being a powerful conservation tool used by essentially every president since it was signed into law, its gains (especially, in a strange irony, with protecting traditional uses) have been called into question by a small minority of Americans who feel that national monuments pose some kind of existential threat to their person, family, or lifeway.

You may or may not have recently seen that President Trump recently issued an Executive Order setting up a review of the use of the Antiquities Act to create national monuments since 1996. Bookending this EO are two national monuments created with paleontological resources explicitly called out in their proclamations; Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Bears Ears National Monument. These two monuments alone protect around 3 million acres of public lands with rock records that span virtually all of the history of vertebrate life on land. Their status as monuments has allowed scientific research to flourish (as in the case of GSENM) or is poised to allow scientific research to flourish (as is the case in BENM). This of course ignores the countless other scientific discoveries made in the nearly two dozen other monuments created under authority delegated to the president by the Antiquities Act; for our purpose here we are going to be focusing on the two monuments in Utah created since 1996 that include paleontology resources in their proclamation.
Map showing GSENM and some of its paleontological resources, created by David Polly for the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was created by presidential proclamation in 1996 under President Bill Clinton. This new monument, and several others created at the time, were part of a new sweeping set of public lands classification changes encompassed in what is now the National Conservation Lands. Despite a dearth of fossils having been published from what is now GSENM it was suspected or known by some paleontologists that the outcrops in GSENM had yielded some novel animals (such as Parasaurolophus cyrocristatus) and the majority of possible fossil-bearing outcrops had not yet been explored. Reflecting this, the White House took steps to protect fossil resources.
Utahceratops gettyi skull from GSENM. Figure from Sampson et al., 2010
At present, over a dozen new dinosaurs have been described from the monument, with plenty more undergoing scientific write-up, publication, and review. Utahceratops gettyi, shown above, is just one of the thousands of spectacular fossil specimens that have been uncovered within GSENM, mainly from areas where detractors are hoping to remove monument protections.

Map showing BENM and some of its paleontological resources, created by David Polly for the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology
Bears Ears National Monument was created by President Barack Obama under the authority delegated to him by the Antiquities Act, just like Bill Clinton used 20 years earlier. Taking existing public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the USDA Forest Service, the new National Monument was created to safeguard traditional Native American cultural uses of the land, archaeological sites, and paleontological resources. Despite being a multi-year process that involved the state, land management agencies, local communities, various Native American tribes with ties to the region, and scientists like myself, this monument has been unceasingly attacked since the moment it was proclaimed with half-truths, lies, and an aggressive smear campaign by some of its more unprincipled detractors.
The oldest vertebrate tracks from Comb Ridge, BENM. From Gay et al., 2017.
In this climate of (some) local antipathy, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke came to visit Bears Ears and Grand Staircase. Some reports claim that he told local leaders that there would be some shrinking or rescinding of national monuments under review, including Bears Ears. If this is true, it would be a terrible tragedy, especially considering that these comments come before the public review period is even over!

Which brings me to the point of this blog. If you love science. If you love fossils. If you love public lands. You need to make your comments heard. This is especially important considering the comment period for Bears Ears is only open until May 26th, a ridiculously short period of time for people to comment!
Screenshot taken from at 9:32 AM MDT, 5/20/17
This is especially true considering that one of the only weekend days of the BENM comment period the site is down all day for maintenance! Not only is internet access spotty across rural Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, where there is lots of tribal support for BENM, but now the federal government has decided to have all-day maintenance on the comments site during one of the few weekend days that people may have time to write up comments or visit a location with internet access.

Once the site is back up and running this evening (if all goes according to schedule), please leave a comment in support of science and continuing protection for paleontological resources within BENM and all national monuments. I've included a draft of my comments if anyone is looking for a starting point.
Comment site:
Dear Secretary Zinke,
I am writing today in order to express my support for the national monuments currently under review by yourself and the Department of the Interior at the behest of President Trump. Not only do national monuments form a vital part of our nation's public lands, they provide meaningful and desperately needed protections for irreplaceable, scientifically valuable, and nationally significant paleontological specimens and research. Above and beyond what protections public lands have in place for fossil specimens, national monument status conveys additional scrutiny, and funding for research, education, and protection. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has produced dozens of scientifically important specimens since the monument was proclaimed in 1996; Bears Ears National Monument will do the same. Already scientists like myself are unearthing, studying, and publishing on amazing discoveries from within the monument. Reducing or rescinding the national monument status for BENM will irreparably hurt scientific efforts in the region and exposes these unique traces of the ancient past, that we all share as part of our national natural heritage, to damage and destruction by people who do not see a reason or find value in preserving and understanding the past. Fossil tell us about extinction and how environments change over time; the only evidence we have of many of these vast climatic shifts comes from the fossil record, including the Triassic-Jurassic transition within Bears Ears. I am calling on you and the Trump administration to fully support BENM and all other national monuments to the fullest extent and respect their existing boundaries under the authority they were proclaimed by powers vested in the President by Congress.
Robert J. Gay, paleontologist and educator
Please take the time and leave comments in support of our national monuments and paleontology within them.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Bibliography Project Update

It has been a while and things have been busy. I wanted to post a note to let everyone know that the BENM Bibliography now has a live, downloadable spreadsheet available free to the public. I will continue to update the static text, but having the references in a spreadsheet format allows for some cool analysis of the publications as historical documents and allows us to see trends in research themes (which is part of my UFOP annual meeting talk coming up in late April).

Anyway, the spreadsheet is available here for anyone to use and will continue to be updated as I find more resources and new papers are published.

Next time on the PP Blog, a look at scientific accuracy in popular reconstructions of Dilophosaurus.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Red Canyon; Fossils and Silence

Red Canyon; Fossils and Silence

or: How not publishing data hurt fossil protection in the fight for Bears Ears National Monument

Some Background

          Okay everybody, gather 'round. Time for Uncle Rob to tell the story of Red Canyon. It is a magical place, with soaring red walls and seemingly endless badlands. Rocks from the Middle Triassic through the Early Jurassic are exposed in its depths, and numerous historic uranium mines, roads, and artifacts. Gorgeous, desolate, and isolated, Red Canyon is truly an amazing location and was rightly included in the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition's proposal for a Bears Ears National Monument. It was specifically excluded under Rep. Rob Bishop's Public Lands Initiative and was also dropped from the final Bears Ears National Monument boundaries.
Bears Ears National Monument Map - Department of the Interior
          Besides the odd isolate on the west side of the map (just east of Lake Powell), the Red Canyon/Moqui Canyon stretch of high deserts, plateaus, and canyons is not protected within the Monument boundaries. Why might that be? One reason is likely Energy Fuels' Daneros Mine, located in upper Red Canyon. The other reason might have something to do with paleontological discoveries that are more like tech "vaporware" than hard science at the moment.

Paleontology in Red Canyon

          I am not going to dwell long on current, ongoing projects in Red Canyon headed up by my friends and colleagues that have started in the last couple of years. For one that would be unfair and unethical since they are investing time and energy into their discoveries. For another, everyone involved in research in Red Canyon currently has a solid record of publishing their work. I am confident that any new discoveries that come out of the Red Canyon area will be properly published in the scientific literature.
          This is a tough subject to write about because the core of the issue are fossils that have never been published. This whole story exists, however, because these fossils have never been published. So I will not name institutions or people involved. I won't even really describe these fossils in any sort of detail because that would be inappropriate. Nonetheless, these fossils existence is known within the small community of paleontologists who work on the Triassic Period in western North America. The most famous are some small reptile skeletons, but other specimens played a role in this story. These specimens are far more interesting than I let on here but I don't want to say much more because the fossils are still undescribed. These reptile skeletons were discovered first back in either the 1960s or 1970s (depending on who is telling the story). They went to a museum back east where they have set ever since. They have been prepared, they have been seen by dozens of visiting researchers, and although they are remarkable they have never been described in a formal publication (or even in the "grey literature" as far as anyone seems to know). A couple of other scientific publications have come out of work done in Red Canyon but they were not describing anything new, unique, or spectacular for the most part: crocodylomorph scutes, phytosaur bones and teeth, etc. (Parrish and Good, 1987; Parrish, 1999). Not to say that these aren't important to document but they don't carry the scientific significance of a new species, for example.

Red Canyon on the Chopping Block

So why does this matter? Well, as I mentioned in my last blog post, I was asked to provide bibliographies of the paleontological and geological resources of the Bears Ears area. I was also eventually asked to go to Washington DC and present that information (and more) in person. I had produced, along with some of the conservation groups who I had been in contact with, a map highlighting several things. A modified version of this map is reproduced below.
Map of the Bears Ears Area before monument designation. Geologic data from Utah Geological Survey database.
          This map outlined both the Utah Public Lands Initiative and the Inter-Tribal Coalition's proposals, and overlaid both areas of known paleontological resources (red hashes in 1. Red Canyon, 2. Valley of the Gods, 3. Comb Ridge, and 4. Indian Creek) and areas pulled from the Utah Geological Survey's online public geologic map database showing where the fossil-rich Chinle and Morrison Formations are exposed (in green). This was done to highlight the potential for new discoveries in this region that has not been systematically explored by paleontologists. This is where I ran head-on into the realities of the wheels of power looking at the various conservation options. Anyone who says that this was a sort of midnight "swoop" into southeastern Utah without considering all the factors doesn't know how these proceedings work.

Publications Count

          This is probably the best "real-world" example of why publishing your finds matter. It might not be a priority to you. It might be a pain, it might take more time than you want, it might get caught up in the chaos of a job change or move. It doesn't matter; publish what you find. Is it all going to be flashy? Hell no. Does it provide useful data for your future colleagues or students in 10, 20, 50, 150 years? It sure does. Perhaps most broadly applicable here, does it provide people outside the science entirely with something solid to point to when trying to decide on the "value" of the land? You better believe it. Without anything concrete to point to about the nationally significant scientific value of Red Canyon, when lawmakers, bureaucrats, and administration officials asked how I could show the area needed protection I couldn't respond. At the Department of the Interior I was repeatedly asked to support my claims that paleontology needed to be protected and what areas were most significant. There are publications, preprints, and abstracts to support the scientific value of Indian Creek, Comb Ridge, and Valley of the Gods. There was nothing to point to for Red Canyon.
          This also brings up a point that my friend Jim has raised on Facebook. The proclamation language heavily favors the Triassic fossils from the region. Part of this is likely due to some of my experience bias creeping in; I mainly work in the Triassic. The majority of that, however, comes again from the published record. While there are hundreds (thousands?) of acres of Middle Mesozoic sediments exposed in the Bears Ears area (see the map above), almost nothing has been published on fossils from those sediments in the Bears Ears. Comparatively the Late Paleozoic and Early Mesozoic comprise the vast majority of the published record for the region. In meetings with the DoI, again, I was essentially told that knowing that something might be out there is nice, the government can't set aside this land from all other purposes based on a possibility. In setting up proclamation language we didn't ignore mid-Mesozoic finds; those projects have either been sidelined, ignored, or not started by our own profession in favor of work elsewhere. And I recognize that it is a tough balancing act. My work in Bears Ears has meant I haven't been following up on leads in other places. We all only have so much time, energy, and funding.


          Would scientists publishing in the 80s or 90s on the Red Canyon reptile material have made a difference? Would Red Canyon now be part of Bears Ears National Monument had these reptiles (and other, more recent but unpublished finds) become part of the published scientific record? That's a what-if game that has no right answer; its inclusion would still have to fight against powerful interests looking to preserve uranium mining in Red Canyon. I do know that it couldn't have hurt and its absence was the weakest point by far in all my efforts to get paleontology covered under a BENM or any legislative action. We shouldn't be publishing for solely political cynicism but sitting on scientifically significant fossils for 40-50 years should not be considered normal or acceptable. This is especially true in this age of rapid, rigorous peer review and digital publication. Sitting on specimens for that long hurts science, hurts future work in the area, and may even end up hurting the very place the fossils came from.

Works Cited

Instead of my usual works cited section here I am going to take this space to say I am going to be creating a Bears Ears Bibliography page here on the blog. This will be a core page here on the blog and will be added to as new papers either come to light or are published. They will be live-linked when possible. Expect this to go live in the first week of 2017. It will start with the bibliography I prepared for the White House so you can see (if you didn't get an e-mail from me before all of this) what I was working from. If you think something is missing and should be included after it goes live, don't hesitate to point it out!