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

Divestiture of the Cook II Collection, 1981-1984

With the eager assistance of John Rapier, one of Jerry Banta's principal goals was to divest the park of curatorial items not related to mandated themes. The groundwork for this began during Bob Burns' tenure. In its entirety, the Cook Collection was an unwieldy 40,000 objects. The first accession of Sioux artifacts, loaned by cooperative agreement and later acquired by bill of sale in April 1968, had become labeled "Cook I." The second accession, bequeathed to the Service by Margaret O. Cook, was called "Cook II." Cook I included around 500 priceless items and was not a problem. Cook II, about 39,500 items, comprised the contents of Agate Springs Ranch buildings, included paleontological artifacts, books, furniture, and even boxes of rags. The combined collection, stored in two places at Scotts Bluff and one at Agate Fossil Beds, represented a monumental management headache. To dispose of nonessential items would substantially reduce the size of the collection and bring it under more realistic control.

Jerry Banta took the first step on August 19, 1981. In a memorandum to Midwest Regional Director J. L. Dunning, Banta requested an opinion from the Solicitor on three points: could the Service 1) lend or transfer parts of the Cook Collection to other agencies or institutions outside the Federal Government; 2) return Cook I or Cook II items to the Cook heirs; and 3) declare items excess property? [10] Regional Director Dunning's subsequent request for an opinion included additional questions from Regional Curator John Hunter. [11]

In a September 30, 1981 reply, Solicitor Albert V. Witham determined Cook I was inviolate, "to be used for exhibition and reference purposes at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument with temporary removal for repair or preservation permitted." Cook II assets could be disposed of under authority of the Museum Services Act of July 1, 1955 (69 Stat. 242) giving the Secretary authority to expend, exchange, or loan property no longer needed "to increase the public benefits" or "interest." [12]

The Solicitor's liberal definition of "expend," however, evoked terror throughout the Service's curatorial community. Arthur C. Allen, Chief of the Division of Museum Services, Harpers Ferry Center, was particularly alarmed. In an appeal to Chief Curator Ann Hitchcock, Allen wrote:

In my opinion this is a potentially destructive interpretation of the Museum Services Act and is not consistent with the intent of the legislation. The Act was promulgated to allow the NPS to exercise policies similar to those used by private sector museums. The law was not enacted to make it easy to dispose of museum resources entrusted to the care of the National Park Service. Under Mr. Witham's interpretation the National Park Service could give away museum objects to anyone or any institution, just as long as the action "increases the benefits derived from National Park Museums." To indicate how loosely "benefits" can be interpreted the memo goes on to suggest that the making of additional space is good enough reason to dispose of federally owned museum objects.

No matter the merits of the case in point, the solicitor's opinion may have a far-reaching deleterious effect on a Servicewide basis. Can you imagine the possibility of park collections being given away on the basis that the public benefits from the additional space gained by the collection's disposal? As proposed earlier, we do need the ability, under certain circumstances, to donate unneeded museum objects to bona fide public museums, but we certainly do not need to open this particular Pandora's Box. [13]

Ann Hitchcock immediately appealed Witham's opinion to Barbara Levin in the Assistant Solicitor's Office, inquiring if it conflicted with previous opinions. Hitchcock believed that the intent of "expend" referred to monetary gifts and gifts of property other than museum objects. [14] Hitchcock's assessment was correct as viewed by an April 5, 1982, Assistant Solicitor's opinion. Regional Solicitor Albert Witham responded the following day:

The April 5, 1982, opinion agrees that personal property donated by Mrs. Cook after July 1, 1955, [sic/1965?] may be disposed of to increase the public benefits or to loan them in accordance with the limitations of our September 30, 1981, opinion. Please note that with respect to returning donated personal property to the Cook heirs, while the Assistant Solicitor agrees that this may be done if it advances the public interest, caution should be exercised to make sure that the public interest is advanced. Hence, you should assure yourself that any objects in Cook II which are returned to the Cooks are not of museum quality and, if returned, will enhance the display and provide room for the quality objects. [15]

Thus, the potential threat to the integrity of Service museum collections dissipated with the distinction made between museum quality objects and mundane personal property.

The next step was to draft a Scope of Collection Statement clearly defining the mission of Agate Fossil Beds and how the collections told the monument's story. The Statement, approved by Acting Regional Director Randall Pope on July 2, 1982, outlined the scope of the three collections: museum, library, and archives. It was against these precise definitions that Cook II could be evaluated and deaccessioning decisions justified. Guidelines for additional collecting and criteria for acceptance or rejection of donated objects were also adopted. [16]

The Scope of Collection Statement represented a fundamental milestone in the park's quest to divest itself of superfluous Cook II material. Its adoption cleared the path for Jerry Banta to contact the Cook heirs, principally the Meades at the Agate Springs Ranch. The move genuinely impressed the Meades who were surprised the Service would perform such a good-neighborly deed. Cook family relations with the National Park Service, icy since the land acquisition and fencing battles of the 1970s, thawed with the prospect of regaining some of the cherished heirlooms taken from than under the terms of Margaret C. Cook's will.

Under the Solicitor's opinion, Cook II divestiture back to the Cook family could not take place without proof of demonstrated public benefit. Jerry Banta and John Rapier devised a "Draft Barter Agreement" between the Service and Mrs. Dorothy Meade. Under the agreement, the Park Service could relinquish items from Cook II which were deemed unnecessary and not of museum quality in exchange for oral history interviews with Mrs. Meade on the 500 Sioux Indian items in Cook I. [17] Jerry Banta reasoned:

Ms. Dorothy Meade is a daughter of Harold Cook. At one time, she gave guided tours through the family museum which primarily displayed the collection of 500+ American Indian artifacts we now refer to as the Cook I Collection. The display and interpretation of these objects is a primary legislated mission of Agate Fossil Beds National Monument. Many of the objects were given to James Cook by Red Cloud and other notable Native American leaders. Each has a special story surrounding its history or transfer. This information is essential to the mission of the Park. There is not now, nor will there ever be, a source for the information other than Ms. Meade. The assistance of Ms. Meade will also be required in the identification of hundreds of photographs in the Agate Collection. [18]

Using the Scope of Collection Statement, John Rapier thoroughly inventoried Cook II. On December 30, 1982, a park review board approved Rapier's eighty-three page inventory of 4,425 separate groupings and submitted it to Regional Director Jimmie L. Dunning along with an updated Draft Barter Agreement. While representing only a small portion of Cook II, divestiture of all items on the list would reduce storage space by an amazing sixty percent. [19]

A lengthy in-Service review process resulted in an eighteen-month delay before the Draft Barter Agreement went to the Solicitor for comment. On August 3, 1984, Regional Solicitor Albert V. Witham suggested two clauses: that Mrs. Meade accept the materials in their present condition without warranties and the Government be free from liability for damage or injury during moving the goods. Witham also requested that a moving date be established in the agreement, and added, "We do not think it would be legally proper to deliver all or part of the goods to her until she has performed all or part, respectively, of her side of the bargain." [20]

Mrs. Dorothy Meade did not wait to sign the Barter Agreement before she began fulfilling "her side of the bargain." Beginning in 1983, Mrs. Meade traveled to Scotts Bluff National Monument to identify artifacts in Cook I and to relate personal knowledge in recorded oral history interviews. [21] In 1984, Mrs. Meade completed the oral history sessions [22] and began work on identifying photographs.

Midwest Regional Director Charles H. Odegaard approved the Barter Agreement and signed it on behalf of the Park Service on December 21, 1984. Mrs. Meade signed the document in early 1985. Final completion of the terms of the agreement came on September 30, 1985. [23]

While steady progress was being made on the divestiture of Cook II, other important achievements were made at Agate Fossil Beds from 1982 to 1985.

In 1982, under provisions of the Scope of Collection Statement, the University of South Dakota-Vermillion won a contract bid for $26,000 for archival organization and inventory of the Cook Papers Collection. After fourteen years of Park Service ownership, developing an index for the massive Cook Papers would make this rich historical manuscript collection available to researchers.

Dr. Robert Hunt returned to Agate Fossil Beds in 1982 to continue excavating the Bear Dog Hill site where he uncovered other den systems. Hunt and three assistants from the University of Nebraska Museum (under a grant from the National Science Foundation and National Geographic Society) excavated one of the oldest large carnivore dens known to man, dating to the Miocene Epoch of 20 million years ago. Terms of the excavation permit for the five-year project provided for interpretation to visitors throughout the period of the excavations. [24]

Professionals from the Midwest Region and Washington Offices also arrived to identify prairie restoration and fossil hills needs. The park installed a fire weather station near the Maintenance Building and John Rapier received training on how to compute and transmit data from the station.

Maintenance activities in 1982 included the installation of new signs conforming with the National Park Sign System and the Park Sign Plan. The construction of a permanent, three-unit unisex restroom facility prompted Superintendent Jerry Banta to lament, "The facility.., exceeds all other headquarters buildings in appearance." [25] Workers added a concrete wheelchair ramp to the visitor center parking lot. The ramp and the new comfort station made all visitor services facilities accessible to the handicapped. Installation of a fire and intrusion alarm system, designed by Regional Curator John Hunter, began during 1982, and alarm indicators put in Ranger-in-Charge Rapier's and Maintenance Foreman Hanson's residences. Finally the park replaced the bridge over the Niobrara leading to the Rapier residence. [26]

Status of the development ceiling for Agate Fossil Beds was $552,700 appropriated through Fiscal Year 1982. Out of the authorized $2,012,000, the unappropriated remaining funds totalled $1,459,300. [27] For the fiscal budget, the results of a Basic Operations Programs Evaluation early in the year showed a minimum of $7,500 needed for Core Mission. Superintendent Banta disagreed with the projection stating that the park:

is not currently funded to meet its mandated mission.... The survey indicated projected requirements of 7.5 thousand dollars in visitor services to meet the basic mission. Since that submission an accumulation of salary increase absorption, administrative reduction, and personnel ceiling imposition have further reduced the park's capabilities. It is now anticipated that approximately 12 thousand dollars and .3 additional work year would be required for the basic operation. [28]

Nineteen eighty-three was the first year of a two-year grasslands study. The park purchased a slip-on fire-fighting pumper for range fires on monument lands, and replaced plexiglass covers on the fossil display cases at the visitor center and along the Fossil Hills Trail. Boundary fencing in 1983 completely enclosed the principal perimeter of the monument to prevent livestock damage to paleontological and prairie resources. Workers installed a hypoclorinator at headquarters; at the ranger residence, they drilled a new well and installed a new pressure tank and hypoclorinator. [29] An additional $26,000 contract went to Archivist Karen Zimmerman of the University of South Dakota to accomplish the second phase of the Cook Papers Collection inventory by July 1, 1984. [30] (An extension resulted in project completion in December 1984.)

The most significant public relations development in 1983 involved the July 15 publication of an article by Dr. Robert Hunt in Science magazine. The article revealed results of Hunt's Agate excavations to the scientific community that denning behavior by large carnivores dated 20,000,000 years ago, 18,000,000 years more than previously believed. [31] Hunt's work at Agate continued in 1984. Under a National Park Service contract, the Nebraska paleontologist completed a report, The Agate Hills: History of Paleontological Excavations, 1904-1925. First called for by Jerry Banta and the Oregon Trail Museum Association in 1981, Hunt's book traces the excavating history of the area utilizing the archives of participating institutions, but not the Cook Papers Collection which were unavailable to researchers.

In 1984, the Midwest Regional Office approved a single "Resource Management Specialist" position to serve both Scotts Bluff and Agate Fossil Beds National Monuments. Resource Management Specialist George Oviatt immediately began a two-year training program at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Indiana.

A visitor was fined $250 for shooting a deer on Federal land in 1984, the first serious law enforcement infraction in the monument's history. Facilities for the handicapped were improved with the addition of a wheelchair accessible drinking fountain and picnic tables. New routed plastic signs identifying wildflowers were constructed for the Fossil Hills Trail. Boundary fencing at the remote Stenomylus site, designed to prevent livestock damage to paleontological and prairie resources, also began.

The park installed a new propane furnace/air conditioner at the temporary visitor center along with a 1,000-gallon propane tank. A modern house trailer replaced the aging ranger residence house trailer. Maintenance Foreman James Hanson enhanced the Maintenance Shop by constructing cabinets, benches, and tables to accommodate a new radial saw and electric welder. The park also purchased a replacement pickup truck and a new garden tractor for mowing and snowblowing, and arranged for the grading and graveling of the road to the ranger residence. The ranger residence received wood siding and a generator for emergency power outages. [32]

Midwest Regional Director Charles H. Odegaard approved a revised Statement for Management on September 24, 1984. Primary management concerns of "such magnitude or immediacy so as to require special attention in park planning and operational actions" are as follows:

The lack of adequate and appropriate visitor access and interpretive facilities severely hinders the ability of park management to carry out the basic mission of the park.

An extensive ongoing program of curatorial care must be developed to preserve and maintain the Monument's large collection of priceless museum objects.

A management plan for the fossil quarries is necessary to properly evaluate continuing requests for scientific use of the resources.

Insufficient scientific and data base information exists to allow sound management of aquatic and prairie resources. [33]

Updated management objectives of the 1984 Statement for Management follow:

To identify, inventory, and monitor the condition of natural, cultural and scenic values of the Monument, and to provide appropriately for their preservation, protection and use.

To manage the unique paleontological resources of the area so as to provide for their scientific and educational use in a manner consistent with the purposes of the Monument.

To provide appropriately for the protection, preservation, and display of artifacts and relics of the Cook Collection and the archeological sites of the Monument; and to interpret the unique relationship of the Indians and early settlers of the area.

To identify, provide for, and regulate appropriate uses of the Monument in a manner consistent with the protection of its resources and existing private rights, and to provide access and facilities to permit and manage such uses.

To provide means for the safety and protection of the visitors, residents, and employees of the Monument.

To maintain the physical facilities within the park in a cost efficient manner.

To provide for the proper preservation, protection and interpretation of the Harold Cook Homestead. [34]

The revised Statement for Management and establishment of the resource management specialist position highlight the Banta/Rapier initiative to identify and mitigate natural and cultural resources concerns.

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Last Updated: 12-Feb-2003