Agate Fossil Beds
Administrative History
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Progress of House and Senate Hearings

In the initial hours of the First Session of the 89th Congress, identical bills "To provide for the establishment of the Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in the State of Nebraska, and for other purposes" were again introduced. In the Senate, the measure was S. 339, while in the House, H.R. 500. On January 10, 1965, the directors of the Agate Fossil Beds National Monument Association met at the Agate Springs Ranch. They voted to send Father Robert O'Neill to the capital to lobby committee members and other officials to ensure early passage of the two bills. Father O'Neill left for Washington, D.C., on January 18. [5]

On February 2, Representative Dave Martin urged the House Interior Committee to hold early hearings on his bill. In an appeal to each member of the National Parks and Recreation Subcommittee, he called for immediate action to preserve the site. [6] Martin's effort bore fruit. Three weeks later, a March 2 hearing date was scheduled. [7]

Scotts Bluff Superintendent Keith Miller met with Margaret Cook and Lester Danielson on February 16 to draft a letter which Dave Martin requested from the Agate Fossil Beds National Monument Association. The letter indicated the Association's support of H.R. 500. In a subsequent public meeting where Father O'Neill related his discussions with various congressmen in Washington, D.C., Miller was startled that the Service's land appraisal was prematurely divulged. Miller informed the Regional Director:

I was surprised to find that Father O'Neill not only knew the appraisal figure, but gave it in his talk. It was not picked up in the Mitchell newspaper as yet, and I am hopeful it will come out in the congressional hearings so it can be released officially. I would assume that the figure is quite well known in the Harrison area. [8]

On March 1, Assistant Secretary of the Interior John M. Kelly supplied a report on H.R. 500 to Rep. Wayne N. Aspinall, Chairman of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs. Assistant Secretary Kelly set forth the Department's proposal. With acquisition limitation of 3,150 acres at an estimated $301,150, the Department set the cost of development at $1,842,000, and anticipated annual operating expenditures of $51,000 the first year and $106,000 after the five-year development plan. The Department suggested three amendments. The first amendment clarified the language in the section on land acquisition. A second amendment provided authorization to acquire a road right-of-way between the principal quarries and the Stenomylus Quarry. The final amendment revised the sentence dealing with establishment and boundary adjustments to read:

When the Secretary finds that lands constituting an initially administrable unit are in Federal ownership, he shall establish such national monument by publication of notice thereof in the Federal Register, and any subsequent adjustment of its boundaries shall be effectuated in the same manner. [9]

On March 2, the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, Subcommittee on National Parks and Recreation, held a fifty-minute hearing. Margaret C. Cook, Dr. C. C. Black of the Carnegie Museum, and Dr. Malcolm C. McKenna of the American Museum of Natural History were present to testify. With Chairman Ralph J. Rivers (D.-Alaska) presiding, Rep. Dave Martin introduced his bill and briefly discussed the historical significance of the Agate Fossil Beds. Rep. Roy A. Taylor (D.-N.C.) demanded to know why the State of Nebraska did not use the Land and Water Conservation Fund to acquire the land. Martin dismissed the inquiry, stating Nebraska could not manage the area even with the new funds,* but Congress should act to authorize the area before the 1967 centennial. He then submitted for the record letters of recommendation by Senators Hruska and Curtis, Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, Western Nebraska United Chambers of Commerce, and Agate Fossil Beds National Monument Association. [10]

*Senator Roman L. Hruska scoffed at the notion of Nebraska owning and operating the Agate Fossil Beds: "The response of the State would not have been in keeping with the importance of the location and the essence of that project. Knowing of the financial limitations on states generally, it's no affliction unique to the Nebraska Legislature. But they do not have that vision and that stability of purpose and of development and of the historical significance to a point where there could be assured the necessary funds to purchase, and even more important, to maintain and to develop the park. So it was a matter of putting it on a national basis because it is a national resource, a national asset. It's more than just a State or local situation." See Honorable Roman L. Hruska (former U.S. Senator from Nebraska), interview with author, Omaha, Nebraska, 26 June 1986, transcript, p. 3.

A statement by Assistant Director Howard W. Baker was submitted for the record [11] before Margaret Cook recited a brief history of the area for the committee. No mention was made of ownership or donation rights. The most persuasive testimony came from Dr. Malcolm C. McKenna:

Ever since 1904 this locality has been the source of display specimens for the major museums of this country and of the world, and ever since 1904 there has been a steady stream of not only vertebrate paleontologists but others interested in fossils from all over the world. There is not a year that goes by without a number of very famous foreign paleontologists as well as Americans visiting the Agate area.

Agate has also made its mark on the textbooks. Every textbook that I know about of historical geology or vertebrate paleontology will have in it murals or illustrations of murals made of the animals that once lived at Agate. Our whole idea of the history of the Myocene has grown up with Agate as a main part of our knowledge about the life of the past in the United States. [12]

Dr. McKenna testified that the fossil beds were not mined out, but seventy-five percent of the bones remained. "It is like a good many mines," he commented:

The more you dig, the more there is. This site is of international importance from a paleontological standpoint. It is not just a local spot. It is not just something of interest only to Americans. It is a very famous source of paleontological information. And I certainly believe that it is very important that this become a national monument and be preserved in that way for posterity. [13]

In response to the statement that the boundaries appeared to encompass an area greater than required, Dr. C. C. Black declared that fossils existed throughout the area. Although it was true the richest concentrations were in the hill quarries, the banks of the Niobrara were also fossiliferous. [14]

Director George B. Hartzog, Jr., testified before the same House subcommittee in a fifteen-minute hearing on March 16. In a prepared statement, Hartzog declared approval of the bill would allow the Park Service to:

preserve an outstanding paleontological site with significant related geological features. It would also provide a center for continuing paleontological research, for the display and interpretation of scientific specimens, and for the protection and exhibition of a valuable collection of Indian artifacts and relics.

National Park Service studies of the fossil quarries at Agate Springs indicate that they are nationally significant and represent an important chapter in the evolution of mammals, a chapter which is not now adequately represented in the National Park System.

Planned developments include a major interpretive facility in the vicinity of Carnegie and University Hills.... The exposure of fossils for in-place exhibits, reconstructing and reliefing certain skeletons and the preparation of museum exhibits will require a paleontological laboratory to assist the scientists in their work, along with a reference library and a collection of fossil materials. The Indian artifacts and historical materials of the famous Cook family collection would be exhibited at a combination visitor and administrative office facility near the present-day ranch headquarters. [15]

Rep. John P. Saylor (R.-Pa.) asked Director Hartzog his opinion of the meaning of a telegram the committee received from the law firm of Wright, Simmons and Hancock of Scottsbluff: "Re Agate Springs Park, committee should realize that tender donation does not include land on which fossil deposits are located, that donor has only a life estate of heavily encumbered land to donate." Hartzog was at a loss to explain the telegram, but guessed it originated from the interests in the Cook estate: "Now, with respect to the legal rights that Mrs. Cook may have with respect to that estate, I am not acquainted; . . . she proposes to donate whatever interest she has in it, and if that is not in accordance with the facts, we will clarify it for the record." [16] The hearing concluded with a weak request to look into the land donation question.

There is no record the Service ever clarified the matter. The evidence is clear, however, that Park Service officials were fully aware of the four Cook daughters opposition to Service plans in regard to the Agate Springs Ranch headquarters. The same applied to the legislators pushing for the bill. Kirk Coulter, an aide to Senator Roman Hruska, later wrote: "At the time the legislation was passed authorizing the Agate Monument, I do recall there was a sharp difference of feeling between Dr. Cook's widow (his second wife), and the four children by the first wife. The Park Service sided with the widow, and we went along, in order to put over the legislation," [17] It was Senator Roman L. Hruska's intent—and by extension, the intent of Congress—that the ranch headquarters fall within the boundaries of the proposed monument. [18]

On the Senate side of the Capitol, on March 8, the Department sent a status report on S. 339 to Henry M. Jackson, Chairman of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs. [19] On April 6, the first and only hearing was held on S. 339 before the Subcommittee on Parks and Recreation. Because of the favorable outcome of the previous hearings, the proceedings of 1964 were reincorporated by reference in the 1965 session. Assistant Director Howard Baker submitted a statement similar to the one prepared for the House. [20] Baker was the only witness testifying. When asked to explain the discrepancy between the $275,000 for acquisition in 1964 and the current $301,000 price, Baker explained the independent Magdanz appraisal. Senator Milward L. Simpson criticized the difference stating, "The Park Service for some reason is notoriously low on their appraisals. In some instances I have seen it where it has tripled over their appraisal figures." Citing the case of Fort Larned National Historic Site, Kansas (established August 31, 1964), he declared, "I don't want to be chinchsy [sic] about it. It is unfortunate it did not get through last year when we would have paid less." [21] After twenty-five minutes the subcommittee went into executive session.

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Last Updated: 12-Feb-2003