The Friendly Federation

Founded to Serve

Southeast Federation
of Mineralogical Societies, Inc.
June 2002
“Some Thoughts on Land Access Issues”
John Wright
Past President of SFMS
Current Member of the AFMS Conservation/Legislation Committee
Current Mississippi State Representative for the American Lands Access Association Inc.

It seems like every day we hear about another large parcel of Federal or State land being closed or severely restricted for rock hunting.  Private lands are being gobbled up by residential, commercial, and industrial developments, or put off limits due to leases for lumbering, mining, hunting, and a hundred other reasons.  A very good friend of mine works for the lands management office of International Paper Company.  He tried to obtain permission for my club to visit several nearby sites located on property they own but was refused due to insurance restrictions.  Some irate owners restrict access to their lands because of bad experiences with (heaven forbid) rock hounds, hunters, campers, or just the public in general.  Others just don't want to be bothered or are plain antisocial old grumps.  I have probably missed numerous other reasons, but I think you get my point.  Friends, we are in a fight and each day we are losing more and more.

The first thing we have to do is clean up our own act both as individuals and as clubs.  I have been told of sites being left in a condition closely resembling a battlefield or garbage dump, but of course none of us are guilty; we always leave a place in good condition.  It's an area for each of us to consider and personally rate ourselves, a subject which needs repeated discussion at meetings just think of the horror stories), and a topic for bulletin editors to expound on periodically.  The second thing we have to do is express our gratitude.  Did you thank the property owner, offer to pay them, or share what you found?  I find that it is greatly appreciated if I send a simple thank you note, a card, or something made from a find on their property.  Treat their property better than you would your own, make friends, and maybe even recruit some new members.  Remember these people usually know their area better than we do and once they know what you are looking for and trust you not to trash their property, they will often suggest other sites.  They also know their neighbors and frequently a personal recommendation from someone an owner knows will open the door to other collecting sites.
Articles that I have written in the past gave some of our members the impression that I am opposed to all conservation or environmental issues, the preservation of natural resources, protecting items that are of scientific or educational value (i.e. certain fossils), or putting in public trust (parks) areas of pristine beauty, historical interest, or that have some unique characteristics.  Actually, just the opposite is true, I am very much aware and actively engaged in a number of organized efforts to protect, preserve, and try to better our world for future generations.  I have a very personal stake in this since I'm a grandfather nine times and soon to be ten.  I consider myself most of all to be a realist.  Staring at the rear end of a mule from kin to can’t, breaking ice off a pan of water to wash sleep out of your eyes, checking for spiders before you sit on the two hole privy, stoking a wood stove, milking cows before school, pulling a cross cut saw, working waist deep in mud and water thirty feet down a dug well, and a thousand other experiences some of us grew up with probably had considerable influence on our realistic views.  Utopia is a figment of the imagination, "a dream." When God drove Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, he placed a cherubim (that's a mighty angel) with a flaming sword at the entrance that faces all directions to guard the tree of life, so I don't think we stand much of a chance of getting back in there real soon.  Assuming that most people, radicals and certain cults not included, are also aware that a perfect world is not an attainable reality, then where is all the heartburn we are getting coming from?

Understanding your adversary can give you the information for charting a course to avoid problems or the ammunition to use when conflict is unavoidable.  Existing in the primitive conditions of our ancestors or some primal rain forest native tribe may appeal to some activist but is not an ideal way of life to most of us.  The greater majority of environmentalist and conservationist probably share this opinion and even cherish modem conveniences.  This is by no means meant to suggest that they are a bunch of hypocrits; over the years I have actually met one or two that were sincere and tried to practice what they preached.  They have their agenda just like we do and unfortunately, this sometimes puts us at odds.  Their general membership probably never considers or isn't aware of the hurt they may impose on other organizations such as ours.  This is a double-edged sword that cuts both ways and we should be ever mindful and considerate in our actions not to cause problems for others.  Amazingly, we have members of our own organization that also belong to these groups but do not realize that sometimes there is a conflict of interest or ultimate undesirable consequences in their actions.

The forte of environmental and conservation groups are based on "issues," real or imagined.  Once a group has organized to fight a particular threat it is most unlikely they will voluntarily disband once the challenge responsible for their origin is resolved.  They will find other "issues" or if necessary invent them; they must have them to maintain their existence, growth, prosperity, and longevity.  The majority of decisions rendered in cases involving "issues" translate to domination good or bad over the will of others and winning is extremely important to these organizations not just an ego trip; it's their sole purpose for existing, their life blood so to speak.  Lobbying and litigation are the predominant methods used (now you know why so many lawyers are affiliated), but direct confrontation is employed when necessary.  Covert, underhanded actions are prevalent methods employed to sneak items past public scrutiny and into law.  These self-serving groups fully believe that realizing the goals of their agenda and forcing their will on us is more important than conforming to the dictates of a democratic society.  Another approach frequently used is the shotgun method.  The specific purpose or goal desired is masked by demanding changes that encompass much more than their agenda calls for.  This leaves room and hopefully leverage for negotiation.  Using this process often results in more legislation being realized than is needed or even wanted and further imposes unwarranted restrictions on the public.

Lawmakers and appointed bureaucrats are politicians.  Public opinion is the fuel that drives their ambitions.  We do not have troops actively engaged in a major combat situation, the cold war has more or less ended, and our economy is doing pretty good at present.  Scandal and environmental threats to the world and all its creatures occupy most of the media.  We errant humans in search of better, healthier, and a more comfortable life-style have created all these problems or this is what we are led to believe.  Activists that used to pollute the air burning flags or wrecking havoc rioting, well-known entertainers and other affluent individuals looking for ways to show their gratitude for being successful, and a lot of other people with nothing better to do have found a new cause in saving the world.  Being extremely active in nature, these groups infiltrate every facet of our life with special attention being given to recruitment of members of the scientific community (this adds credence to their cause), educators and people involved in youth organizations (indoctrination is easier at a young age, produces more dedicated members, and allows you to infiltrate families which are the basic units in our system of life).  The magnitude, intensity, and constant barrage of information generated and dispensed staggers the imagination.  It provides almost limitless subject matter (sometimes sensational) for the media and often is not checked for fair representation or factual accuracy.  It cultivates an atmosphere that worries and concerns the public and on occasion unduly excites the masses.

Politicians always looking for ways to enhance their public image succumb to this pressure and are jumping on the environmental bandwagon and embracing their agenda with open arms.  Some have managed to ride this "protect everything" tidal wave into high elected office or appointed positions of authority.  We have all felt the impact of many recently enacted or amended laws, regulations, and policies that not only affect our hobby interest but place restrictions, require permits, new taxes, or raise existing taxes on almost every phase of our life.  Funds are being appropriated for research projects and conservation measures that were unheard of a few years ago.  The more horrific a problem, the more funding.  Books and articles that have a tendency towards sensationalism are much more profitable than publication containing unbiased research conclusion and boring data.  I'm predisposed to believe that even the most upstanding individual under these circumstances might be inclined to fudge a little, and shadier characters will outright take liberties.  These good intentions are going to return home to their proponents some day and take a big old chunk right out of their backside.  This is not wishful thinking; we are already spending a bundle to support programs and enforce restrictions that are unnecessary or redundant in many cases.  Its costing us jobs or sending them out of country to competitors, depleting revenue sources, restricting industrial development, and blocking markets.

Another area where we are feeling the pinch in public land accessibility is with the personnel assigned to administer and control them.  The operating funds and number of authorized personnel have been reduced nationwide by states and the federal government.  Faced with these cut backs many officials feel that they cannot provide adequate security or safety for their assigned areas have limited or denied access to lands under their control.  This also provides good reason for those that just don't want to be bothered.  The environmental and conservation groups have recognized this as a golden opportunity and are pushing the "issue" for all its worth.  It seems that we humans have heavily damaged public lands in the past and if left unchecked, will completely destroy them.  There is a lot of truth to this hypothesis but their method of control by zones should be closely monitored.  Most of my information is secondhand and I don't want to cry wolf too soon, but the heart of the proposal is that all public lands should be zoned with varying degrees of restrictions.
I do not believe that our particular hobby by any stretch of the imagination represents a major environmental threat.  Quite the contrary, it exposes us to the wonders of our world, appreciation of science, the recognition of the fragility of nature, and the realization that many of earth's treasures must be protected and preserved for future generations.  Many, if not most, of the greatest discoveries in archaeology, paleontology, and mineralogy were directly or in some part made possible by the efforts of amateurs.  Academia and the scientific community do not have the people, time or money to search out every corner of the world.  They have to be made aware that we "rockhounds" are ready volunteers that could represent a tremendous reserve of assistants in their quest.  Preserving known or suspected sites of scientific or educational value, areas of particular beauty, popular retreats, etc. should be controlled but to deny or severely restrict access to all federal lands in general is ludicrous.  I think that most of you agree with me in this and also that we are a great bunch of people that are being taken advantage of.  Well, friends, an awful lot of this is our own fault.  Surprisingly enough, we outnumber those who want to restrain us and it may interest you to know that there are many times more people who share our interest that are not affiliated with any of our clubs or societies.  We are just more passive than our adversaries and prefer spending our time, effort, and money on items incidental to our hobby.  Most of us are so busy with doing our own little thing that we only get involved with others when we want to learn a new method or skill.  We are often not aware of problems developing in our own areas, let alone problems that other clubs are contending with.  When we do put up a fight it's usually alone or limited to neighboring clubs that are facing the same circumstances.  We have an attitude problem that must be changed if we are to survive.  Once public lands are restricted, private land will soon be forced to follow suit or begin charging exorbitant fees and then the unthinkable, someone somewhere will surely start to question the origin and ownership of our rocks, minerals, and fossils.

As some of you may have guessed, all of this editorializing was premeditated and perpetrated for reasons other than just blowing off steam.  I represent the SFMS as a member of the AFMS Conservation/Legislation Committee.  I was recently appointed Mississippi State Representative for the American Lands Access Association Inc.  We need your help and your money.  Please write your Congressmen and Representatives.  Bear in mind politicians only do three things - nothing, react, or overact.  At present they are doing nothing regarding the proposal of the Lands Access Act; we eventually want them to react in a way that is beneficial to us, and not overact by adopting all the suggestions of the environmentalist and conservationist.  If you feel that you cannot properly communicate with them, I have a prepared letter in proper format that you may copy.  Find out what is going on in your state, appoint someone in your club as a liaison to keep the membership informed, and by all means let your state and local government officials know how you feel about issues that affect you and your club.

The American Lands Access Association Inc. at present is the only organized effort we have fighting to defend our rights for access to public lands.  They need your financial support to maintain the services of lawyers, lobbyist, and to meet administrative expenses.  All the work performed by this organization, other than that requiring legal expertise and lobbying, is accomplished by volunteers.  Membership is $25.00 per year and an application form is included with this article.  Many of you have limited budgets or feel that you already spend too much on your hobby.  If you can afford a membership, it will be money well spent and greatly appreciated.  I would like to recommend that our clubs and societies consider becoming members and understand that the membership fee quoted is the minimum; it would be fantastic if you could contribute more.

Finally, let's fight fire with fire.  Organizations formed purely for political or lobbying reasons are not entitled to tax exempt status.  This is a fine line and understand that I would never recommend such backhanded strategy, but just relish the thought of the turmoil a challenge could cause.  Conduct programs for your local schools, science teachers really appreciate good educational programs with exhibits (mineral specimens, fossils, and ultraviolet light demonstrations are big winners) and art teachers just love how to do instructions.  The kids enjoy this type program more than going out to pick up garbage Oust a little jab).  Scouts, because of their type organization and training, welcome our involvement.  They have several merit badges that we can help them earn.  Remember children represent future members but you must plant the seeds.  If you generate enough interest you may involve their parents and we sure need young adults.  Are your shows community oriented, do they include youth programs, and craft demonstrations?  Do you try to get articles printed in your local paper, be the guest in a local radio talk show, or appear on TV with unique specimens and articles crafted by your members?  How many displays have you placed in local museums, libraries, parks, schools, or welcome centers?  Often our clubs are one of the best kept secrets around.  Let's change our attitude, image, and community standing.  With effort we can make our desires known and by earning respect and gaining prestige we can start recouping some of our losses.  It's so nice to be a winner.

John Wright is a Registered Professional Geologist, a published scientific author, a member of Sigma Xi (the scientific research society), a two term past president of his local club, served seven years as the SFMS Mississippi State Director, and a member of several SFMS committeesand past 2nd VP, 1st VP, and President of SFMS.  His forte is carving.


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