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

Reconstructed fossil cycad flower. NPS photo.

Situated just southwest of the little community of Minnekahta, South Dakota, which is in turn roughly 20 miles northeast of Edgemont (pop. 867), there is a 320-acre tract that used to be a national park. More specifically, this half-square mile in the southern Black Hills used to be Fossil Cycad National Monument .

Fossil Cycad National Monument never had a visitor center, a staff, interpretive programs, or anything like that. In fact, it was never open to the public.

Why Fossil Cycad was removed from the National Park System over a half-century ago is a very sad tale. Everybody who loves the national parks should learn this story and remember it well.

If you want the long version of this story, you will find it at this site.
In 1892, a man named F. H. Cole was exploring federally owned land near Minnekahta, not far from his Hot Springs home. There, to his wonderment, he found that erosion had exposed hundreds of fossil plants in the 120 million year-old Dakota Sandstone Formation. This proved to be one of the world’s greatest surface concentrations of fossilized cycads, a type of plant that resembles a fern or palm (though unrelated to them) and still grows in the world’s tropical and subtropical locales. The photo accompanying this article shows a modern cycad (commonly pronounced sy-kad or sy-kud [with y as in "eye"]).

Cole had found what amounted to an entire fossil forest of cycads.

Cole sent photographs of the fossil cycads to Smithsonian Institution geologist Professor Henry Newton. In short order (1893), another scientist, Professor Thomas MacBride, published the first description of the site. The word was out.

Yale paleobotanist George Reber Wieland was keenly aware that the fossil deposit was extremely vulnerable to plunder or vandalism, being situated as it was on a remote tract of public land. Concerned that the fossil treasure trove might end up in “unworthy hands,” or worse, Professor Wieland used the Homestead Act to gain ownership of a half-section of land (320 acres) containing the fossils.

In 1922 Professor Wieland offered to return the land to the federal government, provided that a national monument was created to protect the fossils. This was deemed reasonable, and the site, by now world-famous, was proclaimed a national monument by President Warren G. Harding on October 21, 1922.

In his Proclamation 1641, President Harding explained that he was creating the national monument because: ".....there are located in section thirty-five, township seven south, range three east of Black Hills Meridian, South Dakota, rich Mesozoic deposits of fossil cycads and other characteristic examples of paleobotany, which are of great scientific interest and value...."

However, while all this negotiating and speechifying and handshaking was going on, nobody bothered to protect the fossil cycads from thievery. Even before the Fossil Cycad National Monument formally came into existence, illegal collectors had stripped away every last one of the hundreds of fossil cycads that had made the site worthy of national park status.

It’s more than a bit ironic to consider the formal and informal arrangements that were made for stewardship of the site. Jurisdiction over the new national monument? That would be the responsibility of the Wind Cave National Park superintendent. Check. Day to day supervision of the site? That would be delegated to local ranchers. Check.

But for crying out loud, there was nothing there to supervise. The fossil cycads that could once be seen on the surface were already gone!!

This probably won’t surprise you, but the Wind Cave superintendent made only brief, sporadic visits to the site. There isn’t a single mention of Fossil Cycad in any of the Wind Cave superintendent's reports until 1933, more than a decade after the national monument was established. In that same year of 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.

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 some day 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.

This is a mighty slim rationale for creating a national park, and an even slimmer one for maintaining its existence for 35 years without ever opening it to the public. But that’s what happened.

Scientific research was conducted at the site on an intermittent basis, and it was determined (certainly by 1935) that numerous fossil cycads of excellent quality could be excavated at the site. These discoveries offered proof of the site’s scientific value, but did nothing to counter the growing criticism of the site’s national park status.

It wasn’t until the early 1950s -- by which time the principal supporters of Fossil Cycad National Monument had already died, and there were still no surficial fossil cycads to be seen – that the National Park Service professed a serious interest in getting the park delisted. Finally, in January 1955, South Dakota Representative E.Y. Berry responded to a National Park Service request and introduced legislation to abolish Fossil Cycad National Monument.

It was S. 1161, introduced during the 84th Congress, that finally got the job done. The bill, which received strong support from the National Parks Association as well as the Interior Department, was signed into law on August 1, 1956, and became effective September 1, 1957.

The 320-acre former park was turned over to the Bureau of Land Management on December 6, 1957. Due to the "high resource value" of the fossils remaining below the surface, the BLM is unlikely to ever dispose of it .

The tract, which is now divided (north and south) by a highway, has been leased for grazing. There is no public access, nor is there even a single sign indicating that this land was once a national monument.

Comments

This truly is a sad story indeed. I was born in Hot Springs and am originally from Edgemont, where I lived until 1984. Some of my fondest memories are those of searching for and looking at fossils when I was a kid ( which I still do), including those that I found in our yard. I never knew that Fossil Cycad National Monument even existed. Other fond memories were field trips to the national forest and the Dinosaur Museum. I hope to one day take my son to my "hometown" and state to see the natural beauty and history preserved there. It truly is sad that he will only be able to view what once was a National Park, by driving down the highway, choosing which window to look out of and guess where it once was.

Nicolette

What a shame!! I grew up in Rapid City and the only reason that I ever knew about Fossil Cycad National Monument is that my high school biology teacher (1963) had worked summers for years as a ranger at Mount Rushmore, and he told us all about Fossil Cycad.

Kudos to you for being able to reach back 45 years and pull out memories like that, and kudos to your old biology teacher for providing you with something worth remembering.

It should be noted that the primary plunderer of the Fossil Cycad site was indeed Yale university (visit campus to see the specimens), the very same institution which plundered Macchu Pichu. Classic cases of privileged white wasp males looting their way to fame....