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The National Park That Was Stolen to Death

In the Cretaceous period, a landslide in South Dakota buried a lot of cycad plants. They eventually turned to silicate fossils, and gradually, erosion brought them back to the surface of the earth. As the American West was settled, people found them and thought they were pretty neat. One of those people was George Reber Wieland, who was so impressed with the fossil cycad he found in 1898 that he changed his career from paleontology to paleobotany to study the fossils. He spent years working to protect the South Dakota site, until Fossil Cycad National Monument was declared in 1922.

Unfortunately for Fossil Cycad, its official recognition as an American landmark came at a difficult time for the country overall. “It was a period of economic hardship,” says Santucci. “Fossil Cycad wasn’t really developed like other national parks and monuments were.” That meant no one was hired to watch over the land. While the superintendent of nearby Wind Cave National Park was put in charge of its overall management, “day-to-day surveillance was entrusted to local ranchers,” writes Santucci. The site’s only sign—a 15-inch carved wooden plank—abbreviated both “National” and “Monument,” but made sure to spell out “NO PROSPECTING.”

Despite this lack of amenities, tourists continued to swing by, and to take pieces of the monument home with them. “People reading in newspapers about the monument in the Black Hills would come,” says Santucci. Natural erosion meant that new layers of fossils were gradually exposed, creating more buzz and more foot traffic. Such was the Fossil Cycad catch-22: when there weren’t any visible fossils, it wasn’t much of a monument. But whenever there were enough to attract visitors, those same visitors meant they were quick to disappear.

And that is why you've never heard of Fossil Cycad National Monument. Read about the life and death of the national park at Atlas Obscura.

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