OK, I’ll jump in here.
Fossil hunting for profit is a complex subject. First, I would argue that a fossil’s highest value is it’s scientific value. But most fossils do not have scientific value, especially if they are collected the way most fossils are, which is picking them up off the ground and saying, “Look at this”, and taking it home and putting it on the mantlepiece.
Every professional/academic paleontologist I know encourages amatuer collecting. First of all, that’s how sites are discovered. Someone finds a bone, brings it in and asks what it is, paleontologist gets excited. Most pros have work to do, they can’t just wander around the countryside looking for outcrops. The amateur group I belong to has a policy of always donating scientifically interesting finds to the appropriate museum. We’re not looking for money, we just love fossils, and discovering something significant is the coolest thing you can do. So the pros depend on amateurs, and the amateurs depend on pros.
Commerical collecters are a little different. One thing we need to recognize is that most sites will only last a little while. A fossil gets uncovered by erosion on year, and it is often destroyed by the next. So, often if a fossil is not collected it is simply gone forever. So, a blanket prohibition on commerical collection makes no sense, it is counter-productive. Most of the time, if a commercial collecter didn’t get the specimen, it will never be collected, no one would ever know it existed.
But, sometimes we have sites that are very limited in extent, such as the famous Burgess Shale. Allowing commercial or amateur collection there would be insane, there is only a small amount of material and it is irreplacable, one-of-a-kind stuff. Sites like these are national treasures, or international treasures. But there are plenty of places where you can dig up fossil clams by the metric ton. Selling these is fine, it encourages paleontology. After all, the pros can only make a living if the general public voluntarily decides that fossils are interesting enough to fund the museums and universities.
Although I consider myself fairly libertarian, I do not have a problem with public funding of science or art…provided we keep in mind that this is tax money and that the recipients are accountable to the taxpayers. It is not a playground, it is not your right as an artist or scientist to be funded without accountability. So it is not censorship if we decide not to pay for your crucifix in urine, or whatever avant-garde piece of crap you come up with, tax money belongs to the taxpayers and we can do what we like with it.
And of course people don’t only do things for the profit motive. Cecil Adams is the only one who gets paid on these message boards, right? Yet here we all are. But this is for fun. If something is essential for the economy it is best to make sure that it is in someone’s best interest to provide that service.
But back to fossils. The reason Sue was so compicated is that the land ownership was murky. The owner told the commerical collecters they could collect on his land, and if they hadn’t found Sue the specimen would have been destroyed. So, score one for the commerical collectors, without them we have no Sue. But…apparantly the owner didn’t have the right to give permission, since it was tribal land held in trust. And there’s also a big difference between giving the kids permission to keep the bivalve shells they find in the back forty, and a million dollar specimen. There was no contract signed (as far as I know)…the commerical collecters should have known better, or at least offered to split the profits with the guy.
Now, the museum that got Sue had to pay $8 million for it. Is this wrong? Well, without the commercial collector there would have been no Sue to buy. (Nevermind that the collector lost the rights to Sue and didn’t make anything.) Yes, scientifically important finds like Sue belong in museums, but simply banning commercial collecting wouldn’t have gotten Sue for the museum anyway, Sue would have been destroyed. It was feared that Sue would wind up in the hands of a private collector, and no one would be able to study it (I say it because it’s just a guess Sue was female). But I just can’t see a paleontology obsessed millionaire buying Sue without also paying for Sue’s study…if you care enough about fossils to pay $8 million for bragging rights, then you almost certainly care enough about science to fund the science for the bragging rights.
The lesson is, if you are a commercial collector, you’d better make sure that you have legally binding rights to dig. There should be some sort of clause giving the landowner a cut of any major find, otherwise you are courting lawsuits.
Oh, by the way…if I could make a living doing it, I’d be a paleontologist. But it is very very difficult to get a paying position. One PhD paleontologist I know teaches high school science for a living, and can only do his research in the summer. I know lots of “amateur” paleontolgists work full time at it, but are retired and don’t get paid. I’ve spent many many hours working at the Burke Museum and I didn’t get paid, although the museum gave us a very nice dinner once…