The Science of Sustainability

Fossil Collecting in the Bay Area

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Shell hash is common in the Briones Formation, in the East Bay. Photo by Andrew Alden

The Bay Area, rich as it is in geological interest, is not supreme in fossils. We have no dinosaur bones here, no human ancestors, none of the truly precious lagerstätten sites like the Solnhofen Limestone or Burgess Shale. But fossil collecting can still be a subject fraught with disagreement.

The legal codes are clear. California Public Resources Code section 5097.5 forbids anyone to "excavate upon, or remove, destroy, injure, or deface, any . . . vertebrate paleontological site . . . or any other . . . paleontological . . . feature, situated on public lands, except with the express permission of the public agency having jurisdiction over the lands." This covers city, county, regional and state parks. National parks? Forget that too.

"Express permission" is possible. Most parks permit scientists to conduct research, but that is carefully specified so as not to affect your full enjoyment of the public's land. And park staff can carry out excavations for, as the East Bay Regional Parks District puts it, "research, interpretive, educational or park operational purposes."

These people take their responsibility very seriously. In "Junior Ranger" programs in state parks, the instructors allow children to pick up fossils, but after making rubbings of them to take home (or take photos, of course) the kids leave the fossils behind. Even rocks must be returned to where they were found. Guides for the public (like the U.S. Geological Survey's guide to the fossils of Fitzgerald Marine Preserve) scrupulously invite you to "observe" the fossils.

I hope that you will honor and internalize this attitude. Nevertheless, here are three good ways to collect lots of fossils in California.

1. The most straightforward is to visit private lands, where the owner can grant permission and charge an appropriate fee. The remarkable Ernst Quarry in the Sharktooth Hill district, near Bakersfield, is a good example. And at Sonoma's Petrified Forest, a private park, you can buy specimens in the gift shop. Once they're yours, fossils can be traded or sold as you wish.

2. Some public parks allow the public to participate in fossil research under supervision. The Los Angeles County Natural History Museum, for instance, will let you help its professionals on digs at Red Rock Canyon State Park. Whatever you find typically belongs to the state.

3. On federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands, the default is that casual personal collecting is allowed without a permit. This opens up vast areas of the state to you. There are limits: vertebrate fossils (that is, fossil bones) and scientifically valuable finds must be left alone and reported. Other common invertebrates and plant fossils are OK to collect for personal enjoyment in reasonable quantities, but not for trading or for sale. There should be "negligible disturbance to the Earth's surface and other resources."

To judge from the postings on public fossil forums, many fossil collectors carry the BLM's approach away from BLM lands, to private lands like railroad tracks and public lands like beach cliffs and roadcuts. That remains a violation of statute law.

In Bob Dylan's words, "To live outside the law you must be honest." If you are thinking about becoming such a fossil collector, I can only advise you not to. My own practice is catch and release: I bring a brush and collect with a camera. That's how I collected this Pliocene clam at Capitola Beach. If it's still in the cliff when you visit, you can collect it too.

But for those who will ignore my advice, I suggest an honorable rule: do no more than nature does. Roadcuts are always shedding debris, which road crews shovel up and discard. Breaking up this material and taking hand specimens leaves no trace. And at the beach, every stone is there to be destroyed by the scrubbing and chipping of the waves. A handful taken away has slim odds of harming scientific interests. You will risk a scolding by park rangers or landowners, which is no fun for them or for you. They have the law on their side and must speak up. Finally, nature does not conduct trading or selling.

If I had my druthers, some of our parks would find a way to grant express permission to fossil collectors. This happens in other states. There might be a place in, say, Walnut Creek's Shell Ridge Open Space where an old borrow pit could be dedicated to the interests of fossil hunters. Trading and sale of fossils would remain unlawful. I think that by cultivating awareness and appreciation of our fossil resources, it might help inoculate the rest of the land from casual collection.

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Category: Geology

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Andrew Alden

About the Author ()

Andrew Alden earned his geology degree at the University of New Hampshire and moved back to the Bay Area to work at the U.S. Geological Survey for six years. He has written on geology for About.com since its founding in 1997. In 2007, he started the Oakland Geology blog, which won recognition as "Best of the East Bay" from the East Bay Express in 2010. In writing about geology in the Bay Area and surroundings, he hopes to share some of the useful and pleasurable insights that geologists give us—not just facts about the deep past, but an attitude that might be called the deep present. Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.
  • Nick Fullerton

    I saw this mud formation at low tide at point Pinole and wondered if it could be a fossil. It looks an awful lot like some kind of dinosaur to me so I figured someone who knows about this could determine whether or not my imagination is playing tricks with me.

  • Andrew Alden

    Hello Nick, that may be some of the peat beds that occur along the waterline on the west side of the point. Movement on the fault and changes in sea level have left them a few feet higher than the position they formed in.