There is a place between Hot Springs and Edgemont that might be attracting tourists off the highway this summer if things had gone differently decades ago.
A visitor center was once envisioned there, maybe in the shape of a pineapple or beehive, to resemble the dozens or possibly even hundreds of dinosaur-age plant fossils that were once visible at the site.
But the place was spoiled by fossil collectors who exploited it and federal bureaucrats who neglected it.
Today, there is no visitor center, and the above-ground fossils are all gone. Nobody stops or even looks twice as they pass by on U.S. Highway 18, oblivious to the nondescript patch of land that was formerly the Fossil Cycad National Monument.
In this 100th anniversary year of the National Park Service, the story of the monument’s birth and death includes an important lesson for anyone who cares about the 411 areas — monuments, parks, battlefields and historic sites among them — that are under the Park Service’s care.
For Sally Shelton, associate director of the Museum of Geology at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology in Rapid City, the lesson is obvious.
“If you want to manage something as a public resource, you need to make sure that you’ve got the resources to make that commitment,” Shelton said. “Just saying it’s a national park or monument doesn’t give it any protection.”
120 million years of history
The story of Fossil Cycad National Monument goes back a long, long time — about 120 million years — to an era when dinosaurs roamed a warmer and wetter planet. One of the now-extinct plants of that era was the cycadeoid, with frond-like leaves that protruded from a woody base shaped like a modern pineapple or beehive.
At some point during the Cretaceous Period, hundreds of cycadeoids were buried in a clump on the southwestern edge of the Black Hills, possibly by a flood. Eventually, minerals in the groundwater turned the plant remains into stone fossils, and erosion exposed many of them to view.
As settlers came to the southern Black Hills in the late 1800s, they noticed a fossil forest on the landscape. Dozens or perhaps even hundreds of stone fossils, some as big as several feet high and wide and weighing hundreds of pounds, littered the ground. Some had distinct honeycombing, and locals began to collect and sell the most striking examples of what they called “petrified pineapples.”
In 1893, a professor from the University of Iowa visited the area, collected 40 to 50 fossils, and published the first scientific paper about the site.
That got the attention of other scientists, including O.C. Marsh, of Yale University, who obtained 126 fossils from a South Dakota collector around 1900. One of Marsh’s student assistants was George Wieland, who became enthralled with cycadeoids and especially the ones he found in South Dakota.
Wieland went on to devote much of his life and career to the collection and study of cycadeoid fossils, which held many clues about the climate and environment of the Cretaceous Period. In the early 1900s, he published two massive volumes titled “American Fossil Cycads.”
In 1920, fearing that the fossils between Edgemont and Hot Springs would all end up in unworthy hands, Wieland applied to obtain ownership of the 320-acre site under the terms of the Homestead Act. Two years later, he offered to relinquish the claim if the federal government made the site a national monument.
On Oct. 21, 1922, then-President Warren Harding issued a proclamation establishing Fossil Cycad National Monument. The proclamation noted the “great scientific interest and value” of the site, which by that time was believed to contain one of the world’s greatest concentrations of cycadeoid fossils.
The presidential proclamation did nothing to protect the few above-ground fossils at the site that had not already been carted away. Supervision of the monument was assigned to the superintendent of nearby Wind Cave National Park, but he rarely visited the monument and entrusted its daily surveillance to local ranchers.
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Site's proponent was also culprit
In an ironic twist, the man who was principally responsible for the establishment of Fossil Cycad National Monument — George Wieland — turned out to be a main culprit in the mass fossil removal that led to the monument's demise.
Wieland apparently took more than 1,000 fossils from the site for the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, which today touts its collection of cycadeoid fossils as the world's largest.
By 1929, a visiting National Park Service employee found that all the above-ground fossils at the monument were gone, and there was little to justify the site’s continued status as a national monument. The site had been so completely exploited that by 1933, when the office of the National Park Service director sought a fossil specimen from the monument to exhibit at The Chicago World’s Fair, none could be found and a specimen had to be loaned from a private collector in Nebraska.
Wieland, perhaps seeking to justify the monument’s continued existence, conducted an excavation there with the help of a Civilian Conservation Corps crew in 1935. More than a ton’s worth of fossils were dug up and initially stored at Wind Cave National Park before being sent to Yale.
Wieland attempted to parlay the successful dig into the development of a visitor center to house a cycadeoid collection on the site. He enlisted Yale architectural students to draw conceptual designs and sent the designs to the Department of the Interior, which oversees the National Park Service.
Nobody in the federal bureaucracy shared Wieland’s enthusiasm for the site, and no support could be found for the expenditure of federal funds during the Great Depression to build a visitor center on a barren patch of ground in a remote corner of South Dakota. The slim chance of the site ever being developed was further hindered by a quarrel that erupted between Wieland and a National Park Service official.
That official was Carrol Wegemann, the service’s acting chief geologist. Wegemann accused Wieland of stealing the fossils collected during the 1935 excavation and noted Wieland’s removal of numerous other surface fossils before he donated the land to the government.
The monument continued to exist in undeveloped limbo through Wieland's death in 1953. Four years later, Fossil Cycad National Monument was abolished by an act of Congress and the land was turned over to the Bureau of Land Management.
Legacy of lost opportunity
The defunct monument faded deeper into obscurity with every passing year until the 1980s. Early in that decade, a highway construction project within the former monument boundaries unearthed more fossilized cycadeoids, which were sent to the School of Mines museum in Rapid City. Then, in 1985, a young seasonal ranger named Vincent Santucci at South Dakota’s Badlands National Park developed what would turn out to be an abiding interest in the monument’s history. He began excavating documents about the monument from archives around the country and has never stopped.
He’s now the senior paleontologist for the National Park Service and has thousands of documents pertaining to Fossil Cycad National Monument.
“I just think it’s a fascinating story that just seemed to be lost to history,” he said in a Journal interview. “The more records that I found, the more interesting the story became, and it kind of became a lifelong project.”
Santucci has written scholarly articles on the history of the monument (which provided most of the historical material for this news story). He is also developing a traveling exhibit that will feature the monument and is writing a book that will include the monument’s story as part of a broader examination of fossil resources at National Park Service sites.
He hopes the story of the abolished monument will help illuminate and prevent fossil theft, a common problem at the 262 National Park Service areas where fossils are found.
“The story of Fossil Cycad is a really good example of the threat that could impact our nonrenewable fossil resources,” Santucci said, “even in the case of a national monument, when people assume it’s being protected.”
Had the cycadeoid fossils in the southern Black Hills been appropriately protected, there might be a visitor center there today with fossils on display and even a walking path for visitors to view fossils in their natural outdoor environment, like the experience offered at Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. That kind of attraction might have provided an economic boost to Edgemont, about 10 miles to the southwest of the monument site, and Hot Springs, about 15 miles to the east.
Instead, the fossils can only be viewed in private collections and at museums, including those at Yale, the University of Iowa, and at the School of Mines where there are even some large cycadeoid fossils in the landscaping around the campus.
“It’s fun to see fossils in a museum, but to me it’s really exciting to see them in their natural setting,” Santucci said. “We lost that opportunity at Fossil Cycad.”