Is the DOI Strong-Arming National Park Leaders?
Dan Wenk was a career Park Service official who was well-respected by Republicans and Democrats. But he made the mistake of disagreeing with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
When I reached Superintendent Dan Wenk at his office in Yellowstone recently, I was half expecting a gloves-off rant from a man who is known as a cool head. Earlier in the month, Wenk had received a memorandum from National Park Service Deputy Director Dan Smith saying he was being reassigned to an executive position in Washington, D.C., despite his request to serve out his career at Yellowstone until his March 2019 retirement date.
“It’s a hell of a way to be treated at the end of four decades spent trying to do my best for the Park Service and places like Yellowstone, but that’s how these guys are,” Wenk told the Bozeman-based Mountain Journal. By the time I caught up with Wenk, he was candid but a little more reserved. “I expected a conversation,” he told me, referring to his retirement proposal to his superiors. “I expressed many times, ‘Can we just sit down and talk?’ The conversation I requested never happened.”
Wenk first heard of the potential reassignment in April but thought he could preempt it by announcing his retirement. At his age, 66, Wenk told me he has no interest in relocating to D.C. for a position that would take years to master. He had already been planning to retire and had even bought a retirement home two years ago near Rapid City, South Dakota. Wenk hoped publicly announcing his retirement would provide a little certainty to the many stakeholders who deal with the park on long-term issues and who had been treating him like a “lame duck” amid the rumors of his reassignment. If they knew he was staying on until March, Wenk figured, he’d have time to tie up loose ends, prepare the ground for his successor, and, perhaps most important, see through his long-standing commitment to relocate a group of Yellowstone bison to the Fort Peck Reservation in northern Montana.
But the Park Service rejected Wenk’s proposal. In a letter dated June 4, signed by Dan Smith and Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, Wenk was given 60 days to accept his reassignment or retire.
I spoke to several current and former career Park Service officials at various levels, and none could remember someone with Wenk’s prestige and position being removed without cause—which is to say, without that person having done something really wrong to justify removal. Former Park Service director Jon Jarvis, who served throughout the Obama administration and retired in January 2017, says what is happening to Wenk fits a pattern in the Trump administration of “attacking the career civil servant.”
Over his seven and a half years at Yellowstone, Wenk earned a reputation as a peacemaker, liked and respected even by people who disagreed with him.
If Jarvis is right, then Wenk’s removal is indeed a major scandal. However, even if all of this amounts to nothing more than a mishandling of personnel matters—if Wenk’s outspokenness on controversial issues had nothing to do with the decision to remove him—the message to the rank and file and to other career officials is still chilling.
Wenk’s successor, Cameron Sholly, was officially named on June 13. Currently serving as the NPS Midwest regional director, Sholly will step into his new role amid controversy. The conservation community in the Yellowstone area and members of regional native tribes are alarmed by what they perceive as the disrespectful treatment of a leader who was able to move the needle on critical issues like the reestablishment of wild bison populations on native lands, who advocated for the creation of quota districts on the park’s northern border with Montana to shield wolves from hunting and trapping pressure, and who offered a lone dissenting voice in the interagency debates about removing the Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear population from the endangered species list. (The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisted Yellowstone grizzlies in June 2017, and Wyoming and Idaho will hold grizzly hunts later this year for the first time since the 1970s.)
For Caroline Byrd, director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a nonprofit focused on wildlife issues in the tristate region surrounding the park, the Wenk ordeal is, at best, an example of gross mismanagement. “It’s yet another rash decision that didn’t need to be this way,” Byrd says.
“I personally see it as an attack on the park,” says Jason Baldes, a research biologist and member of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe who consults the tribe on wildlife and conservation issues. “[Wenk] was very supportive and understanding of our efforts and the reasoning behind wanting to restore bison for Native Americans.”
Over his seven and a half years at Yellowstone, Wenk earned a reputation as a peacemaker, liked and respected even by people who disagreed with him. John Varley, founding director of the Yellowstone Center for Resources, who first met Wenk in 1980 and worked with him in various capacities until his retirement in 2006, told me Wenk made more progress on the bison issue than any of his predecessors. “Solving a 90-year-old problem, even just getting it on the tracks, is hero work in my view. And Dan is that,” Varley says.
Wyoming Governor Matt Mead, a conservative Republican, praised Wenk for his successful resolution of long-simmering conflict over winter snowmobiling in the park. “We’ve had agreements and disagreements, and I have great respect for him,” Mead recently told the Washington Post. “He’s worked through some very difficult issues. I think he’s done a very good job.”
Recently, Wenk took on what may be the most thorny issue of all: Yellowstone’s surging visitation, up 45 percent since the turn of the century, surpassing 4 million per year. The boom has strained infrastructure, negatively affected visitors in the form of long bathroom lines and traffic jams, and put increasing pressure on wildlife. In response, Wenk commissioned scientific studies to learn how the park can better cope with the flood of visitors while preserving the wildlife, scenery, and natural resources “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations,” as the park’s mandate requires.
“The message is keep your head down.”
There is a significant chance that the data produced by the studies will lead to proposals to reduce or limit park visitorship, especially at popular spots like Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic Spring. Any effort to limit visitorship is bound to cause conflict with concessionaires, commercial permittees, and businesses at the park entrances—but that possibility did not deter Wenk. “Everything you do in Yellowstone is controversial, and I follow that with thank God,” Wenk says. “Can you imagine if nobody cared?”
It might be that Wenk’s willingness to consider limiting park visitorship rankled Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who favors privatizing campgrounds and raising park entrance fees, and who has made it clear that he sees public lands as profit-generating entities. If that was the case, no one ever told Wenk. “I’ve never had any expression that they weren’t satisfied with what I was doing in my job.”
Conservationists and others concerned about the fate of the bison program may take some solace in the knowledge that Sholly, Wenk’s replacement, presided over the the transfer of some 800 bison from national parks under his administration to state and tribal lands in the Midwest. Secretary Zinke has also maintained support for the bison relocation program dating back to his time as a Montana congressman. I asked Zinke’s press secretary, Heather Swift, if he still supports the bison relocation program, and she replied, “Of course he does.”
But there are also the internal ramifications to consider. One senior park official, who asked not to be named, told me that Zinke and the top brass were sending a clear signal: “The message is keep your head down,” the official says. “There are things I’ve been doing that are just a normal part of my job…things I do that I need to get supervisor approval for, and it comes back as, ‘No, don’t do it, you may not survive this, and we don’t have the firepower to protect you.’”
For his part, Wenk, who has been in the Park Service for nearly half its existence, sounded an upbeat note for young park employees who may feel discouraged by the Trump administration’s conservation approach and by controversies over personnel issues. “The commitment they make to public lands will reward them many times over…It’s incredible that we have these places. We’re in the perpetuity business. Because of our protection, these places will be around—if we follow law, regulation, and policy—unimpaired for future generations.”
I asked him what he plans to do with his free time after August. “I used to have a single-digit golf handicap,” Wenk says, “so I’d like to get that back again.”