Now somewhere in the black mining hills of Dakota, there lay a rich Cretaceous fossil plant site. The tale of this site is a tale of obsession, “petrified pineapples”, theft, and one of the very few U.S. National Monuments that has not only been decommissioned, but also lost pretty much all protections it had. That’s right, my friends, today we are talking about Fossil Cycad National Monument.
The plants that would eventually give the monument its name lived at some time in the early Cretaceous, near the edge of the Western Interior Seaway. The Lakota Formation, to which the fossil bed belongs (Santucci and Ghist 2014), was deposited over some period of time between the beginning of the Valanginian and the end of the Albian (Sames et al. 2010). We don’t know the exact story of these plants, other than that they were eventually buried and fossilized in exquisite detail.
Fast forward to 1892 CE. An F.H. Cole, of Hot Springs, South Dakota, discovered an exposed fossil plant outcrop in the Black Hills, and, recognizing its significance, soon alerted nearby paleontologists. The site was first published upon in 1893 by Lester Ward of the USGS. Ward and other paleontologists had recognized the scientific importance of this site and begun collection, even designating several specimens as holotypes. Ward eventually brought the site up with young paleontologist George R. Wieland, who immediately took interest in it. He took so much interest, in fact, that he abandoned a vertebrate paleontology career working with Othniel Charles Marsh in order to collect and study the fossil cycads (and he had just named Archelon, so this was no small thing). He even used the Homestead Act to claim the land for himself, “in order that the cycads might not fall into unworthy hands” (Santucci and Hughes 1998). Keep this in mind as you read.
Wieland eventually decided to turn over the land to the federal government, hoping that the land would be better protected that way. By the time the government started reviewing it, all of the cycads on the surface had been removed (more on that later), but Smithsonian paleontologist Charles Walcott figured that more would be exposed by erosion, and at that point it would be good for the area to be protected. By the power vested in the Antiquities Act, president Warren G. Harding established Fossil Cycad National Monument on October 21, 1922. This designation meant that the fossil resources of the park were to be afforded the full protection of the National Park Service (Santucci and Hughes 1998). This was the third national monument established specifically to protect fossils (National Park Service 2020).
Amusingly, it was later realized that the “fossil cycads” that gave the monument its name were not cycads at all. They were actually members of Bennettitales, a now-extinct lineage of plants that superficially resembled cycads (or pineapples) but are probably more closely related to flowering plants (Cynthia Looy, pers. comm.).
Unfortunately, mismanagement of the site began from day one. Although Edward Freeland, the superintendent of the nearby Wind Cave National Park, was also supposed to look over the monument, he didn’t bother to write a report on it for 11 years. The NPS, being low on resources in general at this time, did not send many to an area of the Black Hills few would go to. Instead, local ranchers were entrusted to look over it (Santucci and Ghist 2014). No disrespect to the local ranchers, but they were not effective at preventing the fossils from damage, unauthorized local collectors, tourists, and George Wieland.
The fossils had been collected as soon as they had been discovered; as early as 1890, local ranchers were selling them as “petrified pineapples” (Santucci and Ghist 2014). Wieland had started removing fossils from the site from the moment he got there. Most of these went to Yale, although he put a few of the collected fossils in his backyard alongside living cycads (Nixon 2014). With Wieland removing plants by the thousands, all the fossils exposed on the surface were gone by the time the monument was founded. He was a well-to-do white academic in the early 20th century, nobody was gonna tell him to stop. Tourists stopping by to take cycads for themselves (because tourists have apparently always been horrible) did not help. Wieland began further excavations in 1935, bringing a bunch more plant fossils to the surface (Santucci and Hughes 1998). And he sent those to Yale too.
This started to draw the ire of Carrol Wegemann, who studied the geology of the site, and Edward Freeland, who wanted a fossil cycad for the Wind Cave visitor center – or, as Wieland called it in one letter, the Black Hills Gravy Train (Santucci and Ghist 2014). So Wegemann claimed, Wieland took all the easily-accessible fossils, sent them to Yale, and left the National Parks Service with the burden of maintaining now empty land. Wegemann tried to shut down the excavation, but Freeland initially sided with Wieland (Santucci and Hughes 1998). Wieland vehemently opposed sharing any of his (hundreds and hundreds of) fossils with Freeland and Wind Cave, however, causing Freeland to vent to a local newspaper about Wieland’s cycad hoarding (Argus-Leader 1938). This article also brought to the public’s attention one disheartening problem: by the mid-1930’s, all of the fossils at the Monument, as far as anyone knew, were gone. Wieland argued erosion and further expeditions would uncover more fossils, proving the site’s worth over time.
This didn’t happen (Santucci and Ghist 2014).
Although people started noting the lack of fossil cycads at Fossil Cycad as early as 1929, this started to become a problem when Wieland argued for the construction of a visitor center in 1937. He wanted a big, impressive building to attract visitors and show off the most impressive parts of his collection, and also be on Fossil Cycad property and not Wind Cave, which according to him was filled with bat dung (Santucci and Ghist 2014). As it turns out, it’s difficult to explain why a national monument is important if the reason for its importance isn’t there anymore. Thus it was difficult to justify to the government why they should allocate the resources to build and maintain it. The Department of the Interior refused him funding. In 1946, NPS staff went to the monument, looking for a fossil cycad to replace one they lost (long story). They expected to find a fossil cycad at a place called Fossil Cycad National Monument. They did not (Santucci and Hughes 1998). Despite all this, Wieland remained a staunch supporter of the monument until 1953, when he died.
Support for the monument died with Wieland; at this point, everyone with the NPS and the government figured that keeping the monument around was pointless. All the plant fossils were now at Yale, which defeated the purpose of having the land be protected. It was officially decommissioned on September 1, 1957 (Santucci and Hughes 1998). Since then, the land has been under Bureau of Land Management control.
And then, 23 years after the monument lost protection, finally new plant fossils were found. Highway construction in 1980 uncovered more bennettite fossils. This earned the land an Area of Critical Environmental Concern designation by the BLM (Santucci and Hughes 1998). A few of the fossils found at this time ended up with the South Dakota School of Mines (Nixon 2014), which is noteworthy for not being Yale. And while Fossil Cycad National Monument may be gone, it is not forgotten; although it serves as a cautionary tale of resource mismanagement, the recovered fossils have provided a wealth of paleobotanical information, including several new species and exquisite details of bennettite external and internal morphology (Wieland 1916).
Shout-out to Dr. Cynthia Looy for bringing the story of Fossil Cycad National Monument to my awareness, and for being an awesome paleobotanist in general.
Anonymous (1938). “Says Professor Cornered Market on Fossil Cycads”. Argus-Leader. Sioux Falls. Aug. 16, p. 14.
National Park Service (2020). “Fossil Cycad National Monument – History”. National Park Service Fossils and Paleontology.
Nixon, L. (2014). “A South Dakota mystery: Who stole the fossils from Fossil Cycad National Monument?”. Capital Journal.
Sames, B.; Cifelli, R.L.; Schudack, M.E. (2010). “The nonmarine Lower Cretaceous of the North American Western Interior foreland basin: New biostratigraphic results from ostracod correlations and early mammals, and their implications for paleontology and geology of the basin – An overview“. Earth-Science Reviews 101(3-4): 207-24.
Santucci, V.L.; Ghist, J.M. (2014). “Fossil Cycad National Monument: a history from discovery to deauthorization“. Dakoterra 6: 82-93.
Santucci, V.L.; Hughes, M. (1998). “Fossil Cycad National Monument: a case of paleontological resource mismanagement”. In: Santucci, V.L.; McClelland, L. (eds.). National Park Service Paleontological Research, p. 84-9.
Wieland, G.R. (1916). American Fossil Cycads. Carnegie Institution, Washington.