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Today, the United States Department of the Interior manages 500 million acres of surface land, about one-fifth of the land in the United States. Since enactment of the Antiquities Act in 1906, historic and scientific resources collected on public land have remained government property, held in trust for the people of the United States. As a result, the Department of the Interior manages nearly 204 million museum objects. Some of these objects are in federally managed repositories; others are in the repositories of partner institutions.

The establishment of the United States as a nation corresponded with the development of paleontology as a science. For example, mastodon fossils discovered at or near present-day Big Bone Lick State Historic Site, Kentucky, found their way to notable scientists both in the United States and in Europe by the mid-eighteenth century and were instrumental in establishing the reality of extinction.

Public land policies were often contentious, but generally they encouraged settlement and use, which resulted in the modern pattern of federal public lands. Continued investigation for fossils from public land filled the nation’s early museums, and those fossils became the centerpieces of many museum exhibitions.

Case studies of the management of fossils found in Fossil Cycad National Monument, the John Day fossil beds, the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding areas of public land, the American Falls Reservoir, and Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument are outlined. These examples provide a sense of the scope of fossils on federal public land, highlight how their management can be a challenge, and show that public land is vital for continued scientific collection and research.

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