by Kate Siber, Pacific Standard
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.