Leonard David has written a column about new Federal regulations governing meteorite collection on public land. Reading the column, we spotted one quote that raised a red flag:
“We tried to account for every kind of occurrence out there,” said Lucia Kuizon, national paleontologist at the [Bureau of Land Management] in Washington, DC. “We felt the policy helps the public understand the issues, as well as for our own resource specialists out in the field when they get inquiries.”
Wait a minute? Meteorites are not fossils. Why is a paleontologist issuing statements about them? What’s going on here?
A bit of history is in order. In the early 1990’s, the Federal government began to crack down on commercial and amateur fossil hunting on public land. The crackdown came at the behest of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, a small but politically powerful association of academic paleontologists who were upset about commercial and amateur collectors taking fossils of scientific value. The Society’s lobbying led to changes in the law and regulations that make it illegal for anyone other than professional scientific paleontologists, or their associates, to collect vertebrate fossils on Federal or Indian land.
The new fossil laws and regulations constitute an unprecedented grab of mineral rights by the US government. Historically, the Federal government has always recognized the right of US citizens to prospect for commercially valuable minerals on Federal land. For the first time in American history, the government declared a specific mineral resource completely off-limits to commercial prospecting everywhere on Federal land.
Ironically, the government’s actions will actually harm the science they were supposed to protect. Most fossils are buried deep in the Earth and only come to light when they are exposed by digging or erosion. If an exposed fossil is not discovered and collected within a limited period of time, it will be destroyed by continued erosion. The number of professional vertebrate paleontologists in the United States is very small. If fossils are not discovered by amateur or commercial fossil hunters, most will be destroyed by erosion before they are discovered, along with any potential scientific value. Other losers include American Indians, who no longer have the right to sell valuable fossils found on Indian land.
Now, it appears, the government is trying to bring meteorites under the same sort of restrictive regulation. The fact that Lucia Kuizon is one of the officials responsible for implementing the Great Fossil Grab is surely not coincidence.
On the surface, the new meteorite regulations do not appear quite as restrictive as those for fossils. They do allow some commercial collection, with a government permit and government fees. Ominously, however, the Bureau of Land Management redefines meteorites as antiquities, like arrowheads or pottery, rather than minerals. The same legal trick was used previously with fossils. Scientifically, it is clearly wrong, like defining the pi to be 3.0. Legally and politically, however, it serves a useful purpose, since it allows the government to declare that fossils and means that meteorites are not subject to US mining law or mining claims, removing hundreds of years of legal precedent that protect the rights of prospectors.
If these regulations stand, they may set a precedent that has serious implications for companies like Planetary Resources, which plans to mine asteroids in space. If asteroidal materials that have fallen to Earth are not minerals, it stands to reason that asteroidal materials in space are not minerals, either.
This touches on the issue of space property rights, which has been the subject of some debate recently. The Outer Space Treaty says that the Moon and other celestial bodies are “not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” It is silent, however, on the subject of appropriation by private parties.
This silence has led to a rift in opinion between lawyers holding statist views and those with a classical liberal leaning. Statists believe that real property rights (land rights) originate with the government and flow down to individuals. Thus, they argue, there can be no claims of private property without prior claims of national appropriation. This legal theory dates back to medieval Europe, where the nation was the property of the King who bestowed land (fiefdoms) on his followers.
Classical liberals, on the other hand, believe that property rights originate with individuals who occupy previously unowned property and mix it with their own labor to create something of value. According to this natural-rights theory, first set down by the great 17th Century philosopher John Locke in his Second Treatise on Government, government’s role is not to create property rights but merely to recognize and protect them. The views of John Locke greatly influenced the Founding Fathers and the American view of property rights since the beginning of the Republic.
Under the classical liberal (and traditional American) theory, private property rights could exist on the Moon and celestial bodies, even in the absence of national sovereignty, because private property does not originate with the national government. That theory would open the way for extraterrestrial development through property-right claims such as the plan proposed by Rand Simberg.
Under the statist (and feudal European) theory, however, property-rights claims cannot exist without prior claims of national sovereignty. Nor are property-right claims necessary, according to proponents of this theory. Property rights are a distraction, according to a recent article co-authored by Berin Szoka, an attorney, board member, and former chairman of the Space Frontier Foundation. “Rather than land grants,” Szoka and co-author James Dunstan wrote, “what these ventures really require is exclusive mining rights for limited durations to reward them for investing in prospecting.”
The Space Frontier Foundation’s position on space policy rights has always been inconsistent, with leaders claiming to support property rights in theory while refusing to support property-rights initiatives in practice. Alan Wasser, an Advocate of the Space Frontier Foundation and chairman of the Space Settlement Institute, has been trying to get the SFF to take a stand in support of property rights for at least a decade, to no avail. (Update: SFF executive director Jon Card has informed us the Space Frontier Foundation now supports space property rights, although we have not found any evidence of public activities in that regard.)
These new BLM regulations show why Szoka is wrong and Simberg and Wasser are right. Mere mining claims, as proposed by Szoka, are not sufficient to protect the rights of private citizens, nor will they create sufficient legal certainty to allow companies like Planetary Resources to operate in space. The US government has already declared that asteroidal materials (at least on the ground) are not minerals and not subject to mining law. If a government bureaucrat can wipe away hundreds of years of mining law and outlaw mining claims with the stroke of a pen, there is no certain at all. Private enterprise needs a firmer basis of protection than that.