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National Park Service
US Department of the Interior

The Story of the Missing Fossil Park

Fossil Cycad artwork

Commemorative artwork for Fossil Cycad National Monument 1922 - 1957. NPS image.

One dot is missing on the map of fossil parks in the National Park System—the one for Fossil Cycad National Monument, South Dakota.

In 1922, Fossil Cycad National Monument was established as the third NPS area to preserve fossils (Petrified Forest NP [1906] was the first and Dinosaur NM [1915] the second). Congress removed Fossil Cycad National Monument from the National Park System in 1957. What happened?

In the 1890s large tree trunk fossils from palm-like plants called "cycadeoids" were discovered in the southeastern Black Hills of South Dakota. Many fossils were exposed at the surface and easy to see. Dating back 120 million years ago, they were likely dinosaur food!

Paleobotanists (paleontologists who study plants) quickly realized the scientific value of the very well-preserved fossils. Their work led to the establishment of the area as part of the National Park System. Starting with the site's discovery in the 1890s, thousands of specimens were removed for research and display in museums. The NPS did not do a good job overseeing the fossils within the park. Disagreements about how to manage and develop the site were common within the NPS and between the NPS and paleontologists.

This missing fossil park became literally a "missing fossil" park. By the mid 1930s all the fossils visible at the surface had been removed, leaving nothing for visitors to see. As a result, the national monument was itself removed from the National Park System in 1957. No visitor center or other public exhibits were ever built at the site.

The story of Fossil Cycad National Monument is a great lesson in the importance of the stewardship mission of the National Park Service. Today, the National Park Service recognizes the importance of maintaining fossils so they are accessible to researchers and also preserved for the "enjoyment of future generations." The 2009 Paleontological Resource Preservation Act formalizes this commitment in law.

fossil cycadiod modern cycad
Fossil Cycadeoids collected in South Dakota are on display at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. Photo by Jim F Wood. Modern-day Cycads are similar to the extinct Cycadeoids. This Cycad growing at the U.S. Botanical Garden gives us some idea of what the Cycadeoids looked like. Photo by Jim F Wood.


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Last updated: April 22, 2010