Thursday, August 17, 2017

Fossil Cycad National Monument: How to Kill a Monument Through Neglect

Architectural concept drawings for a visitor center at Fossil Cycad National Monument
NPS Photo
Public Domain

National Monuments in Danger

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Fossil Cycad National Monument's history is fascinating, but tragic...

Most early monuments were managed and supervised very lightly, often by just hanging a sign that said, essentially, "Hey, this is a National Monument!  Leave it alone!"  At Fossil Cycad, as the story goes, due to a lack of management and supervision, visitors collecting fossils so ravaged the site that, by the time the monument was abolished, there were no fossils left to be found, and, therefore, there remained no need to continue the site's monument status.

That is the popular story, but it is a very oversimplified version of the story.

In reality, the abolishment of this monument was more due to it being a piece of land that no one seemed to want to take responsibility for, or spend money on, rather than being due to the depletion of fossils at the site.

According to Wikipedia, "In 1920, Yale paleobotanist George Reber Wieland obtained the fossil cycad-rich land under the Homestead Act 'in order that the cycads might not fall into unworthy hands.'  Two years later he offered to return the land to the federal government if a national monument could be established to protect the fossils."  This offer was accepted, and on October 21, 1922 the monument was created by President Warren Harding.

Public Domain

The National Park Service (NPS) describes the life and death of the monument as such: "By the 1930s, most of the fossilized plants called cycads were depleted from the surface at Fossil Cycad National Monument. Years of neglect, unauthorized fossil collecting, unchallenged research collecting and a general misunderstanding of paleontological resources, lead to the near complete loss of the resource in which the monument was named and designated. In the early 1950s, it had become apparent that the National Park Service failed to uphold the mission addressed in the Organic Act at Fossil Cycad National Monument. Therefore, in 1957, under the request of the National Park Service, one of America's important paleontological localities lost its status as a unit of the National Park System."

The superstar at this monument, as the National Parks Conservation Association explains, was "one of the world’s greatest concentrations of Cretaceous-period fossils, known informally as cycads or scientifically as Bennettitales. These 120-million-year-old plant fossils have unique branching features and reproductive systems, and scientists believe they might hold important clues to the evolution of flowering plants."

It wasn't just the concentration of the fossils that made this site so special, either.  The article above quotes paleobotanist, and director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, Kirk Johnson, explaining that the specimens found at Fossil Cycad were incredibly well preserved. "Because they were petrified, and in many cases replaced with silica, much of their internal anatomy was fossilized, sometimes at a near cellular level.  This allowed [paleontologists] to study them with the resolution that could be applied to living plants.”

Johnson goes on to describe what was lost at this site.  “Had the trunks not been hauled off by museums and souvenir hunters, the monument would have been a rare place where visitors could have wandered in a petrified landscape that was wholly unlike anything alive today."  An early photo of the site shows one of the first scientists to visit the site sitting on a huge petrified log backed by the rolling hills and meadows of the area.

Thomas Macbride, seated on a petrified log near the Minnekahta cycad beds, was the first scientist to recognize the significance of this fossil locality
Calvin Photographic Collection, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Iowa

There was really never any realprotection of the surface fossils at this site, before or after the creation of the monument.   While the scene might have once resembled Johnson's description above, by the time of the monument's designation, few if any fossils remained on the surface.  In the early 1890s, locals were selling "petrified pineapples" from the site, and early scientific collections in the area hauled many of the surface specimens from the area.  This continued, both locals taking specimens to sell and scientists collecting samples for research, for decades, up to the creation of the monument in 1922.

After the establishment of the monument, in a great, government catch-22, the lack of surface, in situ fossils was a huge factor in the lack of development and supervision of the site, but most of the surface fossils were gone before the NPS was even involved in the first place, and the full blame for the depletion of surface fossils does not rest with them.

As National Parks Traveler explains, by the time the monument was created "there was nothing there to supervise. The fossil cycads that could once be seen on the surface were already gone!!"

In fairness to President Harding and others involved, it was known that the site had been stripped of its surface fossils, but expert opinion held that other fossil cycads might someday be exposed by erosion – in which event, it would be appropriate to have them protected. You could say that the park was established in the hope that there might eventually be 'surficial in situ' fossil cycads for visitors to marvel at.

Of course, there was little the NPS could do before the establishment of the monument in 1922, but even after it was established, no one seemed interested in the site, and this probably had more to do with the eventual abolishment of the monument than the lack of surface fossils.  The NPS just didn't want it.

When the monument was established, it was placed under the administration of Wind Cave National Park, "but day-to-day supervision was left to local ranchers. "  Of course, local ranchers had been selling the petrified cycad off for years.  The Superintendent of Wind Cave National Park seemed to pay little attention at all to the monument under his responsibility for its first 11 years, since it was not mentioned in any of his annual reports until 1933, the same year he couldn't obtain a specimen of the monument's namesake fossil.

In "1933, the Wind Cave superintendent was asked to provide a fossil cycad specimen for display at the World's Fair in Chicago. He had to sheepishly admit that he didn’t have one and couldn’t get one."

Visits to the monument by Wind Cave staff  were "sporadic and brief" during the first years of the monument, and there was not even an "official" review of the site by NPS staff until 1929 when the Superintendent of Yellowstone National Park was sent to "visit and evaluate some of the undeveloped or proposed parks and monuments in the western states."

The report on that visit to NPS Director Horace Albright explained that “all available specimens have been picked up, and there is nothing left that is of interest to visitors.” This report's conclusions helped set the tone of the monument's administration for the rest of its existence, “The present reputation of the national parks and monuments, as places worthy of a considerable journey, is well worth maintaining.  So far as I can find out, the Fossil Cycad National Monument has nothing to protect, and perhaps no bed of fossils. If it has no value, present or future, it is a liability, not an asset, to the rest of the system. Unless Professor Wieland, or someone, can furnish information indicating some purpose to be served by the area, it would seem to be desirable to discontinue it as a national monument."

George Wieland supervises CCC during an excavation at Fossil Cycad National Monument in 1935
NPS Photo
Public Domain

There were still fossils there, though.  In 1935, a dig led by Wieland, utilizing Civilian Conservation Corps labor excavated "over a ton of uneroded specimens" which led to Wieland lobbying for further NPS development of the site.  By this point, though, the monument was already considered a dud, and the ensuing debates between Wieland and the site's acting geologist Caroll H. Wegemann, who felt that, at best, there would never be the surface display opportunities within the monument, and that, at worst, there were no more fossils to be discovered period, further sealed the monument's doom.  There were even accusations that Wieland himself had looted the bulk of the surface specimens from the site.

And Wegemann was proven incorrect, there are still fossils there now, under the surface, as revealed by the construction of a highway through the former monument in 1980, during which "fossil cycad material was unearthed." Perhaps this could have formed the basis of a small exhibit at a relatively unknown and undeveloped unit of the NPS? Still, by the time there were once again surface, in situ fossils at the location, fossils worthy of showcasing, the monument had been abolished for decades.

Certainly, there are precedents for maintaining the status of such monuments, such as Yucca House National Monument in Colorado.  Very few people visit this tiny, undeveloped NPS unit with unexcavated Ancestral Puebloan ruins, but the monument status has been maintained since its creation in 1919 due to the immense historic and scientific value of the site.

While the popular story of the monument is that it was depleted by thieves, largely due to poor supervision and management, and therefore lost its worth as a monument, the real story is a lot more complicated than this.

There was poor management involved, but it really had to do more with the NPS not wanting to manage a unit that was dull rather than one lacking in scientific value.  The value was there, the desire was not.  Considering the fact that there are still fossils there, just not clearly visible, it seems as if monument status was justified.  The NPS study of the mismanagement of the monument shares a quote from paleontologist Dr. Theodore White, "No present areas of the National Park Service contain fossil cycads. Therefore it could be concluded that the area should have been retained in the system based on its merits in relation to the thematic evaluation."

After an attempt by the South Dakota Historical Society to obtain the site, whose secretary wrote, in 1955, "the National Parks Service thinks [the monument] is a white elephant and wants to get it off its paper," the preservation of the site passed over to the Bureau of Land Management when the monument was abolished by Congress in 1956.

In 1997, after being nominated by members of the public, the BLM designated the old monument site as an "Area of Critical Environmental Concern," which denotes an area "where special management attention is needed to protect and prevent irreparable damage to resources." Since the site remains on BLM lands, the fossils are still protected by the Antiquities Act, and the legislation abolishing the monument boosts these protections.

Today, there is no public access, no signage, and nothing on the surface but a highway and grazing livestock, but even just the story of the monument seems worthy of some commemoration at the site.

Original wooden sign from Fossil Cycad National Monument
NPS Photo
Public Domain

Recently, there was a small resurgence of interest in the monument.

Apparently, the BLM in 2014 was "considering erecting interpretive signs or developing a website to tell the monument’s story," and, the same year, a traveling exhibit was under preparation by the Smithsonian presenting the story of Fossil Cycad.  Plans for the exhibit included "panels with text and photographs, a replica of a fossil, and a copy of one of two original hand-routed signs from the monument, which a paleontologist discovered two years ago in the Museum of Geology at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. "

To me, this should be a cautionary tale when looking at the fate of the 27 monuments currently under review.  If monuments such as Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears are not preserved, who is to say what will happen to the unknown and/or undeveloped fossil and archaeological resources still waiting to be unearthed and discovered there?

Abolishing a monument should never be taken lightly, and at Fossil Cycad, it can definitely be argued that a monument was killed off before its time.

Fossil Cycad National Monument

South Dakota
46th National Monument
320 Acres

Established by Presidential Proclamation: October 21, 1922 by President Warren Harding
Disbanded as a National Monument: August 1, 1956 by the 84th Congress (S. 1161)

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Visit for more information.


National Park Service


Glimpses of Our National Monuments: Fossil Cycad National Monument  (1930)

Dakoterra Vol. 6: Proceedings of the 10th Conference on Fossil Resources, Rapid City, SD May 2014


National Parks Conservation Association

Gone But Not Forgotten

Pacific Standard


National Parks Traveler

Pruning the Parks: Delisted Over a Half-Century Ago, Fossil Cycad National Monument (1922-1956) is a Cautionary Tale

Atlas Obscura

The National Park That Was Stolen to Death: Fossil Cycad National Monument held America’s richest deposit of petrified cycadeoid plants, until it didn’t.

Capital Journal

A South Dakota mystery: Who stole the fossils from Fossil Cycad National Monument?

Wikipedia: Fossil Cycad National Monument

Spineless Wonders: a look into our world's deep and diverse past

Fossil Cycad National Monument

Wonders and Marvels: Why You Will Never Visit the Petrified Cycad Forest National Monument

National Monuments in Danger

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