McAbee fossil bed not being protected
Iwrote last fall about concerns that the provincially approved commercial exploitation of the unique McAbee fossil beds near Cache Creek could render the world-class site scientifically worthless.
Shortly after my column appeared, I was frostily informed by the provincial government that after 14 years of commercial fossil hunters mining the beds using metal bars, hammers and shovels, the government had finalized plans to survey for damage and to sign a m e m o r a n d u m o f u n d e r s t a n d i n g ( MOU) with leaseholders that would protect the McAbee site. What the caller didn’t mention was that the adjacent provincially approved mineral lease on the McAbee fossil formation was an open pit cat litter quarry.
No, I’m not joking. Cat litter. Oops, that’s “ industrial absorbents” in provincial government New Speak. This would be hilarious were it a skit on The Daily Show or The Colbert Report. Unfortunately, it is not satire. It is reality in benighted British Columbia.
I was subsequently informed that the cat litter lease had lapsed last year. Did the province snatch it back for scientific research? Nope. I’m told the lease instead went to another private bidder — this one prominently featuring the terms “ drilling and blasting” in its title.
Although McAbee has been known for only a short time, the provincial government says it has already yielded 23 new species of insects and four new species of plants with “ the potential for many, many more to be discovered.”
Actually, says Simon Fraser University paleo-entomologist Dr. Bruce Archibald, the number of previously unknown species found there is already in the hundreds.
This really is a site of unsurpassed scientific value. The provincial government argues that everything is peachy now it has its MOU with McAbee leaseholders.
But Archibald mercilessly shreds the vaunted memorandum in a Feb. 12 letter to Agriculture and Lands Minister Ron Cantelon, who responds with the usual backside-covering, buck-passing bureaucratese about further study, potential research reserves, sustainable management, federal jurisdictions, etc.
Archibald warns Cantelon that incorrect scientific judgments have been made by the ministry, resulting in misdirected policy enabling site destruction. Yet other scientific judgments have been delegated to the leaseholders who, he says, lack the necessary expertise. For example, Archibald points out that the MOU distinguishes between “ significant” and “ common” fossils, the idea being that leaseholders can mine and keep all the common fossils they like, but significant fossils ( all vertebrates except common fish) must be donated to the province.
The real value of the site is not the beautiful individual specimens it yields, Archibald argues, it’s communities of species.
This separation of the fossils into significant and common categories represents a stunning failure to understand that the scientific importance of the site is the opportunity it presents to study how the fossils relate to one another in space and evolve over time as stratified assemblages of fossils.
“ Deciding what insect fossils are important results from false assumptions,” he wrote in an exasperated e-mail responding to my questions
“ In fact, they’re all important. Even the ones not presented for inspection by the claimholders for whatever reason, and the ones that are destroyed in the excavation process by those who haven’t the motivation or eye to see and retain obscure specimens.”
British Columbians have a right to demand a management plan that ensures and gives priority to preserving the genuine scientific integrity of the deposits.