Agate Fossil Beds
Administrative History
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ONE STEP AT A TIME, 1981-1985

Ronald Reagan's Mandate and Core Mission, 1981

With the election of former California Governor Ronald Reagan to the Presidency, the nation began a new era in January 1981. For the National Park Service, an uncertain future loomed. The change in political party in the Executive Branch ushered in a new conservative Republican philosophy that was anti-spending as well as anti-Big Government. The austerity measures of the Reagan platform were seen as a mandate in the wake of the political repudiation of Jimmy Carter. This was certainly true in the case of Agate Fossil Beds National Monument. Hopes for funding the long-awaited permanent visitor facilities, already delayed by the Carter Administration until Fiscal Year 1985, were even dimmer under Ronald Reagan's mandate.

James Gaius Watt's appointment as Secretary of the Interior inspired the Cook heirs to re-ignite their adversarial position. On February 15, 1981, Mrs. Grayson (Dorothy Cook) Meade, wrote to President Reagan:

You are right! Federal agencies have been greedy in seizing property beyond reasonable need; they have built their own little empires, they have disregarded the public good, and they have been bad neighbors, as James Watt recently stated.

Thank you both for that understanding! It is like a fresh breeze to the public. Your suggestion that federal agencies should sell excess property makes complete sense. Such sales, besides producing income, would reduce the resentment with which agencies are viewed, by returning land to productivity and to tax rolls.

The agencies can be expected to defend every scrap of property, and declare that nothing is excess. Perhaps local observers should be asked to suggest specific excess-property situations which the government could then investigate. [1]

Mrs. Meade cited the case of Agate Fossil Beds National Monument where the National Park Service had acquired "by threat of condemnation" 3,000 acres to encompass the five-acre quarry. Stating a generous 320 acres were sufficient, she contended that the remainder was excess and did not merit two full-time or four seasonal personnel. Mrs. Meade asked that former owners be given first option to repurchase the land. Copies of the letter were sent to Secretary Watt, Senators J. J. Exon and Edward Zorinsky, and Congresswoman Virginia Smith. [2]

Senator Zorinsky forwarded his copy of the letter to the Department, [3] whereupon it was channeled to the Midwest Regional Office for reply. The National Park Service spelled out its case in a letter signed by Assistant Secretary Stanley W. Hulett on April 17, 1981. The last paragraph indicated a new Department directive to the Service: "...the Secretary has asked the National Park Service to carefully review their holdings at Agate to determine whether there may be lands in excess of their needs." [4] Backed by a decade of careful planning for land acquisition, however, any review board could cite the historical record to justify the Service's position.

The Reagan philosophy soon translated itself into Executive policy by the Office of Management and Budget which called on all agencies to formulate budgets designed to operate each unit at a "minimum acceptable level" of performance. Secretary James Watt and Director Russell Dickenson concurred with the back to basics approach and encouraged fiscal restraint. By December 1981, a Core Mission Declaration was composed for Agate Fossil Beds with the following objectives:

To preserve and protect the flora, fauna, geological and paleontological resources and scenic values of the Monument and thus allow nature to take its course.

To preserve and protect the Bone Cabin, archeological sites and the Cook Collection from deterioration, destruction or theft.

To maintain the Monument's facilities in good working order.

To provide for display, research, study and interpretation of the natural and cultural resources of the Monument through appropriate facilities and services.

To provide for visitor use of the Monument and for the protection and safety of park visitors, residents and employees. [5]

At Agate Fossil Beds, the call for fiscal restraint was nothing new. Budgets had always been frugal and Core Mission (also called Basic Operations) did not halt National Park Service progress in western Nebraska. In fact, the future brightened with a change in superintendents. After more than thirty-six years in Federal service, Robert L. Burns retired on March 31. Alford J. ("Jerry") Banta, former Superintendent of Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial, Ohio, entered on duty June 14, 1981, determined to set goals and strive for real progress in both parks under his charge.

In the remainder of 1981, stabilization of the historic Harold J. Cook Homestead Cabin (Bone Cabin) was performed. Dr. Robert Hunt's excavations at "Bear Dog" hill, adjacent to the principal quarries, uncovered the skull and other fossil bones of a Temnocyon, or prehistoric dog. It was only the second such specimen of the same genus to be found in the world. (Excavations in 1905 by Carnegie Museum Paleontologist A. O. Peterson in the same area revealed the complete remains of a female adult and a male juvenile Daphoenodon [bear-dog] in one den system). Planning of wayside exhibits in coordination with Harpers Ferry Center began in October by updating the existing plan. [6] Proposed exhibits included three near Highway 29 and five along the Fossil Hills Trail:

ExhibitSubject Location
1Agate Springs Ranch Park Road near Hwy 29
2Chief Red Cloud Campsite Park Road near Hwy 29
3Daemonelix Sites Park Road near Hwy 29
4Fossil Hills Trail Trailhead; Visitor Center
5River and Grassland Fossil Hills Trail Viewpoint
6University Hill Fossil Display University Hill
7Historic Excavations Carnegie Hill
8Carnegie Hill Fossil Display Carnegie Hill [7]

Nearly ten years in the making, the U.S. Government Printing Office published the Agate Fossil Beds handbook, a 97-page document which elaborates the history and significance of the monument, in May 1981. The principal component is written by paleontologists James and Laurie Macdonald and is well-illustrated. Because of the lack of permanent visitor facilities, the handbook represents a substantial contribution to the park's interpretation. [8]

Since 1965, the Oregon Trail Museum Association (OTMA), the cooperative association at Scotts Bluff, has served Agate Fossil Beds. Two similar organizations founded by Mrs. Margaret C. Cook became dormant after her death in 1968. The OTMA formulated its most substantial assistance during the annual board of director's meeting on December 3, 1981. In light of the exciting discoveries by Dr. Hunt, Superintendent Jerry Banta proposed that one long-term OTMA objective should be to fund research into the history of paleontological excavations at Agate to determine the extent, findings, and locations of previous scientific discoveries. The OTMA concurred, establishing an account with a goal of $5,000 to add to any Service funds. [9]*

*The National Park Service subsequently funded the entire project. OTMA funds went to other resource needs.

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Last Updated: 12-Feb-2003