Using a small hand pick to break away the white shale, Robert Harris harvests trilobites, selling the 600-million-year-old fossils to rock shops and gift stores around the country.
What started as a way to pick up extra spending money 28 years ago has since evolved into a full-fledged career for Harris.But Harris believes the State Division of Antiquities, by way of a proposed piece of legislation to be introduced in January, is now trying to put him and other commercial fossil collectors out of the business of buying and selling trilobites.
"The way it reads, it essentially bans commercial collecting altogether," said Harris. "It's a frontal onslaught against commercial collectors."
Harris said the proposed legislation is specifically directed at him and two other commercial fossil collectors with permits to collect from state land on the House Range of mountains just west of Delta. In fact, the three are the only commercial collectors in the state.
Collectors say the measure is the latest volley in an increasingly heated war between collectors and institutional paleontologists, who are morally opposed to the buying and selling of fossils.
Harris, who says he is fighting for his livelihood, has taken his cause to Senate Majority Leader Cary G. Peterson, R-Nephi.
"I know I won't support legislation like this and most of the others
on't support it either," said Peterson, who recently visited Harris' trilobite quarry west of Delta. "Most (in the Legislature) support very strongly the idea of multiple use of public lands, and from what I can see this is a very appropriate use of public lands."
David Madsen, state archaeologist and a member of State Antiquities Advisory Committee that drafted the bill, said opposition is premature. The draft quoted by Harris has since been superseded by another draft, he said, "and it's a long way from being finalized."
"There are several versions of the bill floating around," said Madsen, "and it's still in an early stage of development. But I can say the Division of Antiquities has its own draft and there is room in that version for commercial collecting. We are absolutely not opposed to commercial collecting."
The division hopes to have its version completed soon, after which it will be referred to the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel for possible revisions.
The only real difference between the new proposal and the current law, said Madsen, is that the management of the fossil leases would be turned over to the Division of State Lands, not the Division of Antiquities as is currently the case. That's something collectors have wanted for years.
But Harris and the others are wary, saying the state, through bureaucratic red tape, has in recent years made commercial collecting extremely difficult. Continual delays in the permitting process often put Harris and others in technical violation of state law.
Collectors say they have yet to receive their 1988 permits from state bureaucrats.
Collectors also cite a recent state regulation that each trilobite fossil must be viewed by a qualified scientist to determine its scientific value before it can be sold.
"When you deal in quantities of thousands and thousands of trilobites, there is no way each and every one can be reviewed," Harris said. "We're dealing with the most common trilobite in the world. There are enough of them here to give one to every person living."
Commercial collectors find it ironic that scientists would push for a bill banning commercial fossil collectors when Utah loses tremendous amounts of extremely rare fossils to mining and quarry operations.
In fact, a federal permit for a quarry operation was issued about a mile away from Harris' quarry. That operation, which will commercially remove slate for building tiles, will destroy thousands of trilobites much more rare than those Harris and others deal in.
"If protection of fossil resources is what they're worried about, we're a very small fly in the ointment," said Harris.