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The Heist: How Visitors Stole a National Monument

Fossil Cycad National Monument was home to one of the world’s greatest collections of fossilized cycadeoids—until visitors carried them all away.
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(Illustration: Magoz)

(Illustration: Magoz)

On a brisk day in May, Vince Santucci, a portly, goateed paleontologist in a National Fossil Day cap and Coke-bottle glasses, stood nervously on the side of a two-lane highway in South Dakota, waiting for several busloads of scientists, all of whom had signed up for a field trip on how to safeguard fossils.

This spot in the Black Hills used to be known as Fossil Cycad National Monument. Now just an unremarkable collection of sloping meadows dotted with ponderosa, juniper, and cactus, it once harbored one of the world’s greatest collections of fossilized cycadeoids. The 120-million-year-old fossils, also known as bennettitaleans, had curious flower-like structures that scientists believed held clues to the origin of blooming plants. Hundreds of petrified logs and pineapple-shaped fossils littered these 320 acres, many preserved at a near cellular level. But by 1957, only 35 years after Fossil Cycad National Monument was established, they all had disappeared, stolen by visitors. So Congress stripped the area of its protected status as a national monument—a rare demotion—and it faded from public memory.

Santucci became interested in the problem of fossil theft in 1985, on the boundary of Badlands National Park in South Dakota, when he spotted a man who looked as if he was browsing a rummage sale, scanning the ground and inspecting rocks for a priceless find. Santucci, not in uniform, introduced himself to the local old timer. Not realizing that Santucci was a ranger, the man showed him a cache of fossils that he had collected and invited him to buy some. Later, at his camp in the nearby town of Scenic, the man also mentioned that he had once excavated a 15-by-16.5-foot fossilized turtle on National Park land. That turtle later fetched $35,000, the highest price ever paid for a fossil at the time.

One superintendent called Santucci the government's only "pistol-packing paleontologist."

Santucci, who grew up sketching fossils and dinosaurs in Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History, was incensed. But he didn’t let on. Instead, he and the Badlands’ chief ranger arranged a sting. The man’s punishment for stealing fossils from public land? A $50 fine. “My jaw hit the table,” says Santucci. “This is no deterrent, I thought.” Santucci was tired of watching rock hounds, both hobbyists and commercial dealers, filch fossils from parks. So he trained as a federal law enforcement agent and was hired as the service’s expert on paleontological theft. One superintendent called him the government’s only “pistol-packing paleontologist.”

Visitors frequently do dumb things in parks—they pet bison in Yellowstone and back off the rim of the Grand Canyon during photo ops, and topple ancient hoodoos in Utah. One particularly damaging practice is pocketing fossils. Petrified Forest National Park, in Arizona, is the problem’s epicenter. One 1986 National Park Service study estimated that visitors were removing 12 tons of wood from the park annually; in the early 1990s, despairing rangers hired Santucci to help. “Areas had almost been vacuumed clean of small pieces of wood,” he says. “People don’t realize that fossils are non-renewable resources. We’re not making any more T. rexes.”

Santucci believes most visitors mean no harm; they just have no sense of the damage they wreak. A three-year study he spearheaded with Virginia Tech researchers surveyed visitors to Petrified Forest and found that some came for the express purpose of collecting fossils—and, amazingly, didn’t realize this was against the rules. More hopefully, most of the visitors interviewed reported that a display of “conscience letters”—written by people who had stolen fossils, experienced a run of bad luck, and sent the fossils back to the park—would deter them from taking fossils. (Less positive: A small number of those asked said that the letters would actually encourage them to steal fossils in order to send them back, along with a note, to be immortalized in the visitors’ center.)

Santucci wondered if it would help for potential pickpockets to see real consequences. During his research, while reading a book on the history of the National Park Service, he came across a passing mention of Fossil Cycad. Even Park Service historians seemed to know little about the place, so Santucci dove into the archives. “I began to look at what happened at Fossil Cycad as an analogy,” he says. Santucci decided to use the story of the lost monument “to convince people why they may want to leave fossils behind instead of taking them to put on mantels or throw in their underwear drawers.”

On that day in May in the Black Hills, Santucci spun the tale of Fossil Cycad to his audience of field trippers, who, in khaki pants and hiking boots, poked about the cowpies, sparse grasses, and broken beer bottles. He told them the whole tale of the forgotten park, and how it was doomed from the start because the superintendent of a nearby national park, Wind Cave, was assigned to look after Fossil Cycad but almost never did. Without supervision, locals, visitors, and even a scientist from Yale made off with the specimens. Santucci understood the impulse: He loves fossils, too. But stealing erased what was special about the park, erased the very reason it had been established.

Before getting back on the bus, the scientists snapped pictures of stones and scrabbled about the loose, rocky slopes. One found a fragment of petrified wood. Another picked up what looked like a piece of cycadeoid. A young man clung to the edge of a shallow canyon, examining an ancient log embedded in the cliff. There weren’t many fossils left—just enough to make some wonder if more specimens might be hidden beneath the surface, away from prying hands.

Santucci believes future National Park visitors can be trained to treat the fossils respectfully. Toward that end, he is creating an educational exhibit that will travel the country. It will include an artifact discovered in a basement at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology: a hand-routed sign from the original Fossil Cycad National Monument. It reads NO PROSPECTING.

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