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Fossil Cycad: The National Monument That Wasn't
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George Wieland supervises CCC during an excavation at Fossil Cycad Nat
National Park Service Photo

About forty years ago, road crews were improving a section of US Highway 18 west of Hot Springs, when personnel unearthed some fossil material. What they found were not triceratops horns or Tyrannosaurus teeth. They were fossilized cycadeoids or Bennettitales (commonly, though technically incorrectly, called cycads), an extinct order of plants.

Cycadeoids were cone-bearing plants that resembled palm trees, though they are not related, with woody trunks and similarly persistent leaf bases. Their fossilized remains are a remnant of the era when dinosaurs stalked this country, but also a reminder of a less distant, if more forgotten past. This was once the site of what might have been one of two National Parks properties with a paleobotanical pretext.

Fossil Cycad National Monument never really had a chance. The (surficial) justification for its existence was pretty much gone before the ink dried on its founding Presidential Proclamation.

Nonscientific references to possible cycad finds in the Southern Black Hills go back at least as far as the Custer Expedition of 1874. The scientific community first discovered fossilized cycad trunks in the Southern Hills in 1892, when Professor Thomas MacBride of the State University of Iowa found one at a shop in Minnekahta, a long-gone town between Hot Springs and Edgemont.

MacBride collected more cycads from a ranch near the base of Parker's Peak, the most prominent butte in the area, and published the first scientific study of the specimens in 1893. That same year, a local collector sent photographs and specimens to Smithsonian paleobotanist Lester Ward, who later traveled to the area and published two monographs on Minnekahta cycads.

Thomas Macbride, seated on a petrified log near the Minnekahta cycad beds. Photo: University of Iowa.

Famous Yale Professor O.C. Marsh, whose fierce competition with paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope would become known as the Bone Wars, followed these developments. Marsh recruited a student named George Wieland to accompany Ward on an expedition. Wieland's interest in the Minnekahta cycads grew into a lifelong pursuit, and the National Monument became his personal mission.

Wieland made an important discovery — preserved flowers and fruit, the first observed in the fossil record — in the fossilized trunks that he collected from the Southern Hills.

"Not only was there a large concentration of the cycadeoid fossils in South Dakota, but they preserved morphological features that allowed a much more in depth understanding of these ancient organisms," says National Park Service Senior Paleontologist Vincent Santucci. "They could send section portions of these fossil plants and find cellular structure that allowed for them to taxonomically identify them better. They found budding structures preserved that help to answer questions [about reproduction] that were not well known from these very primitive plants."

Photograph and drawing from George Wieland's "American Fossil Cycads."

Wieland published an important monograph, American Fossil Cycads, based mostly on the South Dakota fossils, but his efforts were not confined to the scientific community. He believed that the general public could share his fascination with the cycad beds of the Southern Hills, if they knew they existed. This was not an unwarranted assumption.

"It wasn't too many years before the establishment of Fossil Cycad that Dinosaur National Monument was established [1915] in Utah and Colorado," says Santucci. "A few years before that [1906] Petrified Forest National National Monument was created. Later it became a national park. So prior to Fossil Cycad, George Wieland was aware that there were two very important fossil monuments that had great public interest."

Wieland personally obtained the land, under the Extended Homestead Act, in 1920, and within two years he had convinced the federal officials that the site was worthy of preservation. In 1922, President Warren G. Harding employed the Antiquities Act to designate the site Fossil Cycad National Monument, a place, according to the Presidential Proclamation, with "rich Mesozoic deposits of fossil cycads and other characteristic examples of paleobotany, which are of great scientific interest and value."

The Monument never truly existed except on paper. Eventually it fell victim to what Santucci (and a co-writer) have called "a case of paleontological resource mismanagement," in a paper plotting the Monument's demise.

George Wieland looking east toward Fossil Cycad National Monument with Parker’s Peak in the distance. Photo: National Park Service.

The new Monument was never managed by a designated administrator. Care was assigned to the Superintendent of Wind Cave National Park, who in turn delegated responsibility to local ranchers. There was never any development that would make the site accessible to visitors and nobody guarding the assets (if there were any left) that justified its protection. When Yellowstone Superintendent Roger Toll visited in 1929, he reported that "all available specimens have been picked up, and there is nothing left that is of interest to visitors.”

Had locals stolen all of the cycads? While it's true that local fossil hunters had been collecting for decades, ironically, Wieland himself may have been the primary over-harvester.

"It appears that, in reviewing thousands of documents, there are little pieces here and there that suggest that George Wieland is responsible for removing the vast majority of the fossil material from the surface," says Vincent Santucci. "He went to great efforts, in terms of letter writing to Congressmen and to officials within the Department of Interior, and even using the Homestead Act to be able to claim that land, to donate it to the federal government. Despite all of those efforts, it does seem clear that — I don't want to use the word obsessive — but he was so driven to make sure that that those fossils were preserved, he wound up taking them back to Yale university to ensure that they were protected."

There are Minnekahta fossil cycad specimens in the collections of the Smithsonian, the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, and other institutions, but Yale University still retains the largest collection, due to Wieland's efforts. Unfortunately, those efforts undermined his case for developing the Monument.

In fact, if federal officials had investigated more thoroughly, the site may never have been designated at all. Contemporary documents indicate the area may have been stripped bare before to the Presidential Proclamation.

According to a paper by Santucci and John Ghist, when federal officials were considering designation: "Charles D. Walcott of the U. S. Geological Survey and the Smithsonian Institution was asked to visit the site and assess its value. Without visiting the locality, Walcott concluded that although there were reports that all surficial cycads had been removed, 'in the future, more specimens will be exposed by erosion, and at that time it would be well for the area to be under the jurisdiction of the Government.'"

Wieland, and a crew of Civilian Conservation Corps workers, proved this to be the case in 1935, when they excavated over a ton of fossil cycads. National Park Service Geologist Carroll Wegemman would later accuse Wieland of removing that material, to Yale again.

A boundary marker is the only sign of the former Fossil Cycad National Monument.

While his compulsively acquisitive approach to fossil cycads may have undermined his case, Wieland was a relentless advocate for development of the Monument. He asked Yale architecture students to draft design proposals for a visitor center, settling on a remarkably cycad-like concept, but the Department of Interior rejected the plans as too costly. He continued to push for the Monument till his death in 1944.

Without its champion and without any surficial cycads, by the mid-1940's the Monument that wasn't was perceived as a liability within the Department of the Interior. In 1955, South Dakota Congressman E.Y. Berry introduced a bill to deauthorize Fossil Cycad, at the request of the National Park Service. The bill passed the following year and became effective in September of 1957. Secretary Will G. Robinson unsuccessfully requested that the land be endowed to the South Dakota Historical Society. Instead, the land was transferred to the Bureau of Land Management.

Architectural concept drawings for a visitor center at Fossil Cycad National Monument. Photo: National Park Service.

What can we learn from the failed Fossil Cycad project?

"I think that the really important lesson for us all is a reminder that fossils are nonrenewable resources," says Santucci. "We're not making any more T. Rexes. We're not making any more velociraptors. We're not making any more fossil cycads. The number of these fossils that occur beneath the ground, or at the surface, or that have been collected and are in museums is limited. So the way that we manage those should be in recognition of the fact that they're nonrenewable."

"I get a chance to go out to classrooms — they could be undergraduate or graduate students in geology or paleontology, or it could be third graders. And whenever we talk about Fossil Cycad, there's sort of a disbelief that we've actually lost a unit of the National Park Service. We've all sort of been cheated the opportunity to get out and experience and learn about this remarkable resource that at one point stood at the threshold of becoming a national monument. So we need to think hard about ways to promote stewardship and preservation of these nonrenewable resources so that we don't see something like this happen again."

The National Park Service is currently in the planning stages for some public presentations to mark the centennial of Fossil Cycad National Monument.

Eventually, weather will expose fossil cycads presently buried in the Cretaceous sands and stone of the Lakota Formation, but not in time to revive the Fossil Cycad National Monument. Wieland's dream was doomed if the general public couldn't see the fossil cycads because they were all in storage at Yale.

Those fossils the road crew found in 1980? "The cycads were placed along the highway, temporarily, and wound up disappearing," says Santucci. "There seems to be a pattern of unfortunate circumstances related to cycads that get exposed to the surface.