We here at Roadtrippers have a healthy respect for the National Parks that have lost their National Park status, but an article over at Atlas Obscura outlines the tragic tale of a National Monument that was not only demoted from its title but entirely and completely decimated. Which probably explains why you’ve never, ever heard of Fossil Cycad National Monument, not even in passing.
Fossil Cycad National Monument USED to be a region in the Black Hills of South Dakota that was protected because it contained a massive amount of Cycad fossils (duh.) These were impeccably preserved and were known for looking a bit like pineapples. Ancient, late Cretaceous-era pineapples. In the 1890s, they were popular souvenirs and curios, and soon, scientists started to study the fossils in earnest. One researcher, George Reber Wieland, was especially enchanted by the specimens and set to work getting the area protected. Unable to get the President to designate it a National Monument under the Antiquities Act of 1906, he used a bit of a loophole. In 1920, through the old Homesteading Act (meant to entice pioneers West with free land), he acquired 160 acres of land where the fossils were and then donated it back to the government. In 1922, Warren G. Harding declared it a National Monument. Harding specifically noted that it was illegal to “to appropriate, injure, destroy, or remove any of the fossils of this monument.”
Unfortunately, the park wasn’t well set up to be preserved. It was far less developed than other monuments, so no one was hired to watch over the land. The superintendent of nearby Wind Cave National Park was tasked with managing Fossil Cycad, and the day-to-day operation was left to the locals. Only one small wooden sign noting that it was a National Monument was put up. But, as tourists started to read and hear about Fossil Cycad National Monument, they continued to swing by… and most took fossils with them. By 1929, the Superintendant of Yellowstone went to check on Fossil Cycad… and found almost nothing was left. Things came to a head when organizers for the National Parks Service display at Chicago World’s Fair of 1933 went to Fossil Cycad to grab a few specimens to exhibit and were forced to return empty-handed.
Drama ensued. The NPS debated whether or not to remove Fossil Cycad as a monument, so Wieland took a crew of CCC men to dig up more fossils, unearthing another ton of cycads. He took the fossils and stored them at Wind Cave, demanding the NPS build a black granite museum at the park where he could safely display them. The NPS refused. Wieland then shipped the fossils to New Haven, CT; meanwhile, tourists were asking to see the fossils at Wind Cave and were told that there were none to see. Wieland fought to have a museum for the cycads built on the monument until his death in 1953, even rejecting proposals to build one at Wind Cave. Four years later, Fossil Cycad National Monument was scrapped.
At the end of the day, there was nothing left to protect, so while it’s sad the monument was de-listed, the NPS really had no choice. It does serve as a reminder, albeit a dark one, to treat America’s public lands with respect. Plus, if you do happen to stumble upon a rare fossil, such as, say, a well-preserved saber tooth cat skull, the way 7-year-old Kylie did in 2010 at Badlands National Park, the NPS will pretty much make you into a hero.