Centennial Commemoration for the Creation of Fossil Cycad National Monument

Park Paleontology logo

Vincent L. Santucci, Paleontologist
NPS Geologic Resources Division

Commemorative logo artwork for Fossil Cycad National Monument, depicting small dinosaur amongst some cycadeoids.


The National Park System administers a sometimes-confusing array of designated areas including national parks, monuments, preserves, historic sites, battlefields, military parks, recreation areas, seashores, lakeshores, rivers, parkways, trails, and more. There is a small list of park areas which share a different type of designation, referred to as either “abolished” or “deauthorized”, where the area was officially transferred from the administration of the National Park System. For a list of abolished National Park System areas visit this website: NPS Archeology Program: About the Antiquities Act.

Illustration (right): Graphic art depicting a small dinosaur Hysilophodon wielandi among Cretaceous cycads. The dinosaur is named in recognition of Yale paleobotanist George Wieland who studied the South Dakota fossil cycadeoids and was one of the strongest advocates for establishing Fossil Cycad National Monument.
NPS image.

Creation of Fossil Cycad National Monument

Illustration of cycad plants and a dinosaur
The boundary map for Fossil Cycad National Monument, in Fall River County, South Dakota.

NPS image.

October 21, 2022 will mark the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the now-abolished Fossil Cycad National Monument, which was located west of Hot Springs, South Dakota, in the southern Black Hills. The monument and surrounding area were originally recognized during the late 19th century as an important source of Cretaceous fossil plants known as cycadeoids, which resemble big pineapples. (At the time the monument was proclaimed, cycadeoids were thought to be true cycads, hence the similar names and the name of the monument but are now known to be distinct.) This important fossil locality preserved one of Earth’s greatest concentrations of fossilized cycadeoid specimens, and collections from the areas were made by paleobotanists from the Smithsonian, Yale University, and other institutions. The scientific significance of this fossil plant locality, along with excitement about the creation of Dinosaur National Monument a few years earlier, led to the proposal to establish a portion of the fossil cycad locality as a national monument through the authority within the Antiquities Act (1906). On October 21, 1922, Fossil Cycad National Monument was proclaimed as a unit of the National Park Service by President Warren G. Harding.

Geoheritage Value—Scientific Significance

Illustration of a fossil of the base of a cycad plant
A scientific illustration of a fossil cycad trunk of the species Cycadeoida pulcherrima, which is one of nineteen cycadeoid species named from specimens collected from the area within and around future monument. At the time, cycads and outwardly similar cycadeoids were not known to be as distinct as they are now.

Illustration from Darton, N. H., and W. S. T. Smith. 1904. Edgemont folio, South Dakota-Nebraska. U.S. Geological Survey, Washington, D.C. Geologic atlas of the Unites States. Folio 108.

The scientific importance of the fossils associated with Fossil Cycad National Monument is based upon the rich diversity and exceptionally well-preserved fossil cycadeoids collected from this locality. Research and scientific publications documenting these collections resulted in the identification, description, and naming of nineteen new species of cycadeoids. The study of the fossil cycadeoids and the preservation of the fossil locality became the focus of Yale University paleobotanist George Wieland’s life work. Wieland worked tirelessly to promote the preservation of the important fossil plant locality as a national monument.

Black and white photo of a group of people digging a trench on a grassy hillslope.
George Wieland supervises an excavation at Fossil Cycad National Monument. Wieland had a complex relationship with the site. He recognized its scientific significance and advocated for protected status, going so far as personally acquiring the land. However, he also collected tons of plant fossils, contributing heavily to denuding the monument of its namesake fossils.
Geologic map of the area of Fossil Cycad National Monument. Map includes legend with map units and scale.
Geologic map of Fossil Cycad National Monument, South Dakota. Data modified from digital geologic map data at and from the original source map of Wilmarth, V.R., and Smith, R.D., 1957, Preliminary geologic map of the southwest part of the Minnekahta quadrangle, Fall River County, South Dakota: US Geological Survey, Mineral Investigations Field Studies Map MF-70, scale 1:7,200.

NPS image.

National Monument Years

Drawings of a visitor center designed for Fossil Cycad National Monument
Conceptual drawing used in planning for a proposed, but never-constructed, visitor center at Fossil Cycad National Monument. Yale University paleobotanist George Wieland, the foremost advocate for the monument, commissioned the plans, envisioning an in situ component similar to the quarry wall at Dinosaur National Monument.

NPS image.

Photo of a metal survey monument.
One of the boundary survey markers that was installed during the 1930s to delineate the boundary of Fossil Cycad National Monument. This marker was recently collected to preserve in NPS collections.

NPS photo.

For approximately thirty-five years Fossil Cycad National Monument was a unit of the National Park System. However, due to other priorities and the onset of the Great Depression, the monument did not receive funding to develop facilities or hire dedicated staff. The monument was placed under the superintendent at Wind Cave National Park, but there was not a regular on-site National Park Service (NPS) presence at the monument.

Through some unfortunate decisions, the over-collection of fossil cycads at the surface of the monument led to an almost entire depletion of these namesake fossils. Attempts to determine whether any fossil cycads were present beneath the surface led the NPS to coordinate a test excavation at the monument in 1935 with the support of Yale Paleobotanist George Wieland and a small team from the Civilian Conservation Corps. Although fossil cycads were located beneath the surface, various factors including the onset of World War II redirected attention away from the monument for many years.

Photo of a wooden sign with the words, Fossil Cycad Natl. Mon. No Prospecting
This wooden sign is one of the few known original objects from the NPS presence at Fossil Cycad National Monument. It was discovered in the collections of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and donated back to the NPS. The monument never had facilities or a formal ranger presence.

NPS photo.

By the 1950s the original advocates for the monument had passed away and there was little interest within the NPS for a monument that seemingly did not have the resource for which it was named. At the same time, the post-war interests in uranium minerals led to pressure for the Department of Interior to expand opportunities for mining claims and the monument was a potential area of interest. On September 1, 1957, in a rarely undertaken legislative action, Congress voted to abolish Fossil Cycad National Monument as a unit of the NPS and transfer the administration and care of the lands to the Bureau of Land Management.

Lessons Learned

logo "leave no trace, outdoor ethics" with abstract swirl art

There are clear lessons to be learned from the history of Fossil Cycad National Monument pertaining to the management of non-renewable paleontological resources. Many paleontological sites are vunerable to damage from careless visitation and over-use.

Leave No Trace—Protect Fossils for Science

Be sure to practice Leave No Trace princples whenever you are in the outdoors. Of particular importance at fossil sites is to:

  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces, and

  • Leave what you find.

If you see signs of vandalism or someone acting inappropriately during your visit to a park site, please contact a ranger at the park or make a report through NPS Investigative Services.


For more information about the history of the abolished monument, see the article shared in the reference linked below.

Part of a series of articles titled Park Paleontology News - Vol. 14, No. 2, Fall 2022.

Last updated: December 1, 2022