(NEXSTAR) — For decades, national parks have served to protect sites with some sort of natural or cultural significance. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always go smoothly. That’s especially true for one former site.
In the late 1800s, ranchers in South Dakota’s Black Hills, near Minnekahta, stumbled upon fossilized prehistoric plants from the Cretaceous period — and lots of them. It wasn’t long before scientists from institutions nationwide caught wind of the discoveries and came to the area to buy up the fossils, Atlas Obscura explains.
Among the scientists was Yale University paleontology student George Reber Wieland, who had already gained recognition for discovering the largest marine turtle ever documented, the Achelon ischyros.
He also had a special admiration for fossilized cycads, even placing some among his backyard plants at his Connecticut home. Wieland was so interested in the fossilized cycads found in the Black Hills that in 1920, he filed for 320 acres of the land under the Homestead Act — after trying to convince federal lawmakers to designate the area as a national monument.
It wasn’t until the fall of 1922 that the land became known as Fossil Cycad National Monument, thanks to a designation from President Warren G. Harding. In his Presidential Proclamation, Harding said the monument deserved protection in order to preserve “rich Mesozoic deposits of fossil cycads and other examples of paleobotany.”
At the time, it was the third federally-protected site dedicated to fossils, according to the National Park Service. The first was Petrified Forest, declared a monument in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt, followed by Dinosaur National Monument, established in 1915 by President Woodrow Wilson.
Unlike Petrified Forest and Dinosaur, the situation wasn’t promising at Fossil Cycad by the time it received its designation.
Part of the problem was the environment. The focal points of Fossil Cycad National Monument — the fossils — were being eroded before more could be exposed, the NPS explains.
Those that were exposed faced another predator: humans.
“Fossil cycadeoids were being taken by the thousands for research purposes and to display in museums,” a report on the agency’s website explains. “The loss of the exposed petrified plant remains eventually left the site devoid of fossils and ultimately without a purpose to justify its existence as a unit of the National Park Service.”
Among the most egregious fossil collectors was the monument’s biggest advocate: Wieland himself.
“He had a scientific interest in the collection, but he almost seemed to become obsessed with the resource,” Vincent Santucci, a geologist and paleontologist with the National Park Service told the Capital Journal in 2014. Wieland is believed to have taken thousands of the fossil cycads from his beloved plot of land.
It wasn’t just Wieland. Despite small signs at Fossil Cycad warning tourists not to prospect, they would come and collect the fossils exposed, even though the monument never officially opened to the public. The more exposed fossils became, the more visitors the monument attracted, and the fewer fossils were left protected at the site.
To Wieland’s credit, historians say he did want to create a visitor center at Fossil Cycad, even if it was mainly to house his favorite collections from the site. And he often pushed for funding for the monument.
But, four years after Wieland’s 1953 death, and after the site had lost its most crucial resource, Congress de-authorized Fossil Cycad National Monument.
In 1955, Representative E. Y. Berry of South Dakota introduced legislation to abolish the monument, a report from the NPS explains. It was the NPS itself that requested the legislation be introduced. (At the time, visitors to Fossil Cycad probably would not have seen any fossilized cycad.) The legislation would later pass, and Fossil Cycad lost its national monument status, instead becoming part of the Bureau of Land Management.
The NPS released a statement amidst the abolishment, saying it “was requested by the NPS in line with its policy to eliminate from the National Park Service those areas considered to be of less than national significance.”
The legislation did stipulate that should fossils be found during construction or excavation, they would become the property of the federal government. That happened in the 1980s, according to NPS. In 2015, the BLM designated the 320 acres of the former monument as an ACEC, or area of critical environmental concern, protecting it from future mineral leasing, fossil gathering, development, and more.
Still, there are no signs or other indications of where the national monument even was anymore, instead serving as a reminder to “leave no trace and take only memories and pictures.” Meanwhile, the prospected cycads are now part of collections at Yale, the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, and other museums — and likely some private collections.