Thursday, October 7, 2010

Fossil Cycad National Monument

I consider myself fairly well-versed in the National Parks and Monuments of this country, but I'll admit this was one I'd never heard of before. A bit of research led me to write this post both about the history of this forgotten Monument. This commemorative image for the Fossil Cycad National Monument comes from the NPS website.

The story of this monument begins with the discovery of fossilized cycadeoids in 1892 by F. H. Cole. He sent photographs to Henry Newton, a geologist at the Smithsonian. Interest in the site began to pick up among paleobotanists. Ultimately, George Wieland (a paleobotanist from Yale University) secured the land under the Homestead Act "in order that the cycads might not fall into unworthy hands" (Hot Springs Weekly Star, 1938). I'll return to this particular statement later in the post.

Two years later, Wieland turned the land over to the government so that the land could become a National Monument. President Harding signed the Fossil Cycad National Monument into being on October 21, 1922. Not much was done to develop the site for the next decade. In 1935 Wieland supervised a group of CCC workers who excavated a number of test pits. Over a ton of uneroded cycadeoid specimens were removed during these excavations. Wieland was keen on developing this site as an in situ site for the public to see fossils. In a 1937 Science discussion Wieland writes, "Fossil Cycad Monument more than all others of its series is as we now see dependent on an absolutely in situ development and display. Without this it can mean but little, as a mere blurred shadow, all but lost again in the shuffle of time." However, accusations were made against Wieland that he removed all surficial cycadeoid specimens prior to turning the land over to the federal government. Also, that all cycadeoid specimens that had been unearthed ended up in museum collections including the Smithsonian and the Peabody. By 1956 no cycadeoids could be found at the surface anywhere in the 320 acre Monument. The Monument was abolished on September 1, 1957, and on December 6, 1957 the land was turned over to the BLM.

The story of this National Monument has a couple of important lessons for us. First, many areas of our country hold specimens from the planet's history, and without our stewardship they will never be protected. Second, if a particular parcel of land does not have some kind of impressive scenery or value to wildlife, then its desirability is limited. A visitor center describing a fossil forest buried under the ground is not nearly as impressive as a visitor center located near an exposed fossil forest. As Harry Slattery, personal assistant to Secretary of the Interior Ickes wrote in 1937, "It is realized that the area is of outstanding paleobotanical interest . But it is also realized that the subject of fossil cycads does not have a broad appeal and, therefore, extensive development of the monument would benefit only a limited group of people. This is particularly true since the area does not possess other outstanding attractions. The scenery is neither impressive nor is it unusual; the geological interest, other than its paleobotanic relations, is not phenomenal; the area is too small for wildlife preservation; the terrain does not lend itself well to recreational development, and there is little historic interest."

A more in depth history can be found here.

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