Agate Fossil Beds
Administrative History
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The Preliminary Study and Advisory Board Endorsement, 1961

Decades of dreams and hopeful conversations finally bore fruit in 1960 when the National Park Service, as a component of its "MISSION 66" program, identified the Agate Springs Fossil Quarries in an inventory of scientific areas. In an August 5 letter from Chester C. Brown, Chief of Recreation Resource Planning of the Region II Office in Omaha (now called the Midwest Regional Office), the Service announced, "In connection with our Nationwide planning activities, we should like to include the Agate Fossil Quarries in an inventory of scientific monuments. Our purpose is to provide a readily consulted file of significant scenic, scientific, and cultural resources." [1]

Jack Eichstedt, a Park Planner from the Omaha Office, visited Harold and Margaret Cook on October 5, 1960. [2] A more detailed study of the area was made in November when Ed Alberts and Larry F. Knowles, Division of Proposed Park Studies, visited the ranch for two days. [3]

The prospect of Park Service involvement at Agate excited Harold and Margaret Cook. In a January 16, 1961, letter to his old friend, Howard W. Baker, now the Midwest Regional Director, Cook explained that the principal reason for the establishment of the Cook Museum of Natural History was "to save and protect collections we have here that are irreplaceable. . ."

We have felt for some time that the best possible arrangements should be made to carry on the ownership of the Agate Springs Fossil Quarries, in hands that will not only appreciate and use it, but will prevent vandalism and waste of these irreplaceable resources. To that end I have considered some sort of a trusteeship by one or more of the larger institutions, universities, and organizations, such as the Geological Society of America; and while that would be fine in some respects, in each case and to which we have given some direct thought, there are limiting factors and reasons why THAT ONE, might not work out as it should. I have the feeling that the N.P.S. could do this to the best possible advantage, even if it did require a bit in the way of special or unusual arranging of the usual patterns of activity. Certainly, from the widest viewpoints, it IS worthy of careful thought by all concerned. [4]

Authored by Larry Knowles, the "Preliminary Study of the Agate Springs Quarries Area, Sioux County, Nebraska" was completed on April 14, 1961, and forwarded to Director Conrad Wirth for approval. The Preliminary Study outlined the extent of the National Park Service's plans for a new national monument in northwest Nebraska. The study served not only as the basis of the Service's argument for establishment of an Agate Fossil Beds National Monument before Congress, but for all subsequent initial planning efforts in the new park.

The 1961 Preliminary Study noted that the site was of national significance and met the Evolutionary Development of Modern Mammals portion of Sub-theme VII, Golden Age of Mammals, of the National Park System Plan Handbook. If included, the Agate Springs Fossil Quarries would be unique in the System and "as outstanding to the chapter of life pertaining to Miocene mammals as Dinosaur National Monument is to Jurassic reptiles." [5]

A prefatory remark revealed that Dr. Harold J. Cook "is quite concerned about the future of this classic scientific site when he can no longer care for it. He has indicated he would like to donate his paleontological collection and quarry area to the Service." [6] The report admitted that although the Agate Springs Fossil Quarries had been worked by scientists for more than seventy years, the landscape had been only slightly disturbed. Further, it cited Harold Cook's assertion that "large representative remains" could be found within the untouched portions of Carnegie and University Hills, and Amherst Point—an estimated seventy-five percent of the quarries.

The interpretive potential, according to the Preliminary Study, was great and followed the often-cited National Park System's model, Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado:

An unusual opportunity presents itself for display of in situ fossils by tooling beneath the burden at Carnegie Hill to the two- to three-foot thick horizontal fossil beds. Through use of electric lighting and imaginative interpretive display techniques, a visitor could more closely feel himself associated with conditions of this now vanished landscape than is possible even at the elaborately developed Mesozoic fossil quarry at Dinosaur National Monument. Here, he could be made to feel he's right there within the Miocene, so to speak.

In addition, other methods could be used to present the story to the public, including visitor opportunity to observe scientists exposing the deposits, reconstruction of some of the creatures in place, and other interpretive techniques. [7]

With fossil reliefing on-going, there was a natural need for paleontological laboratory facilities at Agate which would then evolve into a Miocene research center complete with a reference library and fossil collection. This added attraction could then be made an important facet of the area's interpretation.

Site feasibility was termed "unusually high" with Cook's intention to make available land to preserve the fossil hills and "any additional land in the family that the Service feels is necessary to preserve the quarries and provide for public use and enjoyment." [8] At the time of the report, Cook had placed no conditions on his offer to donate the land, but several future consideration were discussed:

He would be very pleased if his ranch headquarters area could be retained as a base of operations for research workers in the area since it has so long a tradition of established hospitality to nearly all the noted vertebrate paleontologists of the past half century. He also feels that the achievements of his father in settling this territory and encouraging paleontological work should be memorialized in some way. In addition, he is concerned with the preservation of his father's priceless Indian collection and is very hesitant to break it up. He showed only lukewarm interest in the possible donation of it presently for display at Fort Laramie.

There are about 7 ownerships involved... totaling about 2,600 acres. Assuming Dr. Cook donated the approximate 1,600 acres of family land, there would be about 1,000 acres at an average cost per acre of $50 for the Service to acquire. [9]

The Preliminary Study outlined the "ideal" solution for a national monument consisting of 2,600 acres. The principal area, which included the three fossil quarries, was a 2,200-acre rectangle measuring one and one-half by two miles. Carnegie Hill, the site of the in situ fossil display area, was the focal point of the proposed boundary which was drawn to prevent any adverse development to the natural scene along the east-west road. The Stenomylus Quarry should be attached to the principal monument segment by a new road. The study admitted, however, that little was known about the area.

Similarly, a portion of the Devil's Corkscrew (daemonelix) area was incorporated into the remaining 400-acre tract which included the Agate Springs Ranch headquarters and a strip of State Highway 29. Described as an "interesting secondary feature," the Devil's Corkscrew was "desirable but not essential." With subsequent study, both the Stenomylus and Devil's Corkscrew features could be detached or deleted from the proposed monument. If included, the Service should control a narrow strip of land centering on the county road connecting the two detached areas to prevent adverse development. Control through scenic easement or fee acquisition was recommended for up to 350 acres per mile of roadway.

The Agate Springs Ranch headquarters was envisioned as the site of a visitor center and park headquarters to include orientation and information, laboratory, research library, camping, picnicking, administrative, residential, and utility facilities. Except for the in situ fossil site, interpretive services were also to be a principal function of the park headquarters. The site was chosen "because of the existence of mature trees, a good water supply from springs, both of which would provide pleasant and inviting surroundings and proximity to a state highway." [10] In addition, the facilities would not intrude upon the natural scene of the in situ feature.

The Cooks continued intimate involvement at the Agate Springs Ranch headquarters was seen as an added incentive to place park facilities there:

There is ample room for Dr. Cook to continue living at his home even with the addition of the facilities suggested. In fact, he should be encouraged to stay because of the great contribution and intimate knowledge of the scientific discovery and research aspects of the area's paleontology and the Indian history would indeed be assets to draw upon. His Indian collection is of such a high quality as to be worthy of representation in the Visitor Center as an interesting chapter subordinate to the paleontological theme.

This part of Nebraska can be very hot in the summer and cold and windy in the winter. An inviting oasis such as the Agate Ranch in this Great Plains setting of grassland would encourage the visitor to stay awhile and obtain a more meaningful understanding of the area. For many years, scientists have camped in a portion of the attractive wooded area as a base of operations for study; this type [of] use could continue. More recently, lay visitors to the site have camped here also. [11]

Following this outline of the area's attractiveness, the report hinted at the opposition of Harold Cook: "Although the area described is optimum, it is not minimum. Perhaps Dr. Cook would not be agreeable to this solution in its entirety. If this turns out to be the case after discussions with him, there are other possibilities." Later, it stated, "Perhaps Dr. Cook would prefer not to include a portion of his ranch for Visitor Center-Park Headquarters site. In this event, a minimum solution has been worked out." [12] Clearly, the National Park Service wished to include the Cook ranch headquarters within the boundaries, but was prepared to compromise in the face of Harold Cook's objections.

The alternate proposal called for the same provisions listed under the ideal, except for control of the roadway leading to the two detached areas. The minimum solution outlined the minimal elements acceptable for a national monument. The minimum differed from the ideal only by the absence of the Agate Springs Ranch as the visitor center/headquarters.

The Preliminary Study recommended the Director of the National Park Service approve the Agate Springs Fossil Quarries site as a national monument proposal. Subsequent to the Director's approval, the Midwest Regional Office would commence negotiations with Harold J. Cook, "striving for the Ideal solution, as soon as possible so that the necessary steps can be taken and action initiated to achieve the establishment of this area as a National Monument." [13]

Years later, this entire early park planning process was denounced by Park Service veteran Historian Merrill J. Mattes. Mattes, intimately acquainted with the Cook family from his service at Scotts Bluff, was Midwest Regional Historian during this time. Mattes accused his Omaha colleagues of failing to do their homework:

When the Agate Fossil bed proposition came up the landscape architects, planners, and naturalists took over, notwithstanding the fact that the historical elements were important. As Regional Historian I was left entirely out of it; all the planning and consulting was done without considering historical interpretation or preservation. Also ignored was the fact that I was acquainted with the Cook family, the principals as well as the daughters. Had I not been excluded (for whatever reason) from the process, not only would there have been a better grasp of the historical dimension, there would have been a better understanding of the people the NPS was dealing with. I was fully aware of the antagonism between the four daughters and their stepmother, but when that surfaced later, everyone else was amazed. Had I been consulted I could have warned that any agreement with the NPS that did not include an understanding with the girls would be an agreement in jeopardy. [14]

Also from retrospect, former Midwest Regional Director Howard W. Baker did not recall that the Regional Historian was left out of planning, but Baker believed early planning was broad enough to include all the aspects: ranch, collections, and quarries. [15]

At its April 15-19, 1961 meeting, the Advisory Board on National Parks, Historic Sites, Buildings, and Monuments considered the Preliminary Study. The Advisory Board concurred that the Agate Springs Fossil Quarries should be acquired for establishment as a national monument. [16] A news release from Interior Secretary Stewart L. Udall's office on May 30 announced the Board's decision. [17]

Serious negotiations commenced June 26, 1961, when Regional Director Howard Baker and Chet Brown, Chief of Recreational Resources and Planning, went to Agate. Accompanied by Scotts Bluff Superintendent John W. Henneberger, the group conferred with the Cooks. It marked the first time since the development of Scotts Bluff National Monument in the mid-1930s that Cook and Baker had worked together. Baker remarked:

I am greatly enthused about the future of the Agate Quarries and hope something can be worked out. We shall let you know as soon as we can arrange for our planner to come to the area to work out preliminary development plans. [18]

Two months later another Service team arrived. Richard W. Barnett (Western Office, Design and Construction, San Francisco) and Harry Robinson (Chief, National Park System Planning) and Larry Knowles (Chief, Proposed-Park Studies), both of the Omaha Office, came for further discussions. [19]

In a show of good faith, Harold Cook donated an additional assortment of frontier style furniture to Fort Laramie National Historic Site. [20] While confidence with the National Park Service boomed, dissention began to grow within the family. A grandson studying economics at the University of Nebraska asserted that the investment of tax dollars at Agate would be wasteful as the majority of Americans would rather see the fossils displayed in a museum. Castigating him for short-sightedness, Margaret C. Cook responded that "your attitude toward his lifelong dream of this development of the fossil quarries will hurt [Harold] very much." [21]

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Last Updated: 12-Feb-2003