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Liberals have 'Stone Age' attitude to fossils: scientists

Scientists are accusing Premier Gordon Campbell's Liberal government of allowing the province's prehistoric heritage to be ground up for cat litter.

International and B.C. paleontologists say the government has a Stone Age attitude that contributes to the destruction of the province's vast fossil heritage.

British Columbia is the only province in Canada with fossil sites that doesn't have a dedicated law protecting the sites from plunder or industrial exploration. And while the B.C. agriculture minister acknowledges there are "gaps" in the patchwork of laws covering the sites, he couldn't promise legislation would be in the works.

The issue has come up again after Tumbler Ridge paleontologist Richard McCrea said last week he has found a major fossil site in northeast B.C., which he is keeping quiet about because he's concerned it will be plundered.

Simon Fraser University paleontologist Bruce Archibald said Tuesday he's met with three Liberal cabinet ministers over the past decade about government protection of fossil sites, but the destruction continues.

Harvard-trained Archibald, an expert in the 50-million-year-old Eocene period, said one of his prime exploration sites near Cache Creek, B.C., called the McAbee fossil site, allows commercial fossil hunting, roadbuilding and mining for cat litter production.

"There are two claims on the McAbee, one by the fossil dealers and one by the miners who are grinding up the fossil-bearing shale," he said. Archibald is calling on the government to assume ownership of the site, including the areas claimed by the fossil dealers and cat-litter miners. "The province has ignored paleontology to a great degree [and] other jurisdictions have embraced it," he said.

"The result is not just that things are sitting here undone, the result is there's a great negative impact of destruction and loss. Once these things are lost, you can't grow them back or reimport them. They are gone forever," McAbee said.

Other provinces have used their paleontological heritage for scientific and economic gain, said Archibald, citing Alberta's Tyrrell Museum and the Royal Ontario Museum.

Agriculture and Lands Minister Steve Thomson said there is a memorandum of understanding in place that protects the most significant fossils at the McAbee site. British Columbia has heritage protection laws, but not a specific, designated protection law, Thomson said.

He said the government amended the Land Act last spring to manage fossil sites while the Heritage Conservation Act, Park Act, Mineral Tenure Act, Park Act and Ecological Reserve Act all have fossil protection provisions.

Thomson said the government recently completed a public consultation process that examined a fossil management framework, but its results and recommendations have yet to be made public.

"We know there are some gaps with the process," he said.

Tumbler Ridge's McCrea said British Columbia's indifferent approach to heritage protection amounts to a missed scientific and economic opportunity.

"The whole thing for paleontology for British Columbia is a major black eye for the province," he said. "They look at it as an expense. They don't see the value in it."

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