AFTER OUSTING DAN WENK OVER BISON, INTERIOR SECRETARY NOW MUST DECIDE: WILL HE STAND BEHIND HIS CONTROVERSIAL NATIONAL PARK SERVICE DIRECTOR?
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on the doorstep of America’s first national park. Photo courtesy NPS
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo—There was a somber mood Wednesday wafting around the old 19th-century military barracks at Mammoth Hot Springs, the official administrative headquarters of America’s oldest national park.
As thousands of visitors hiked the travertine terraces and old cavalry grounds nearby, watching mother elk and calves grazing on the lawns, few were aware of what transpired that very morning. Word arrived early, mountain time, circulated via email from the US Interior Department in Washington, DC, that Cameron “Cam” Sholly would be the next Yellowstone superintendent. His new post is widely considered one of the most prestigious and high-profile non-military field jobs in government.
For Sholly, the announcement represents a joyous homecoming, a return to the place where, as a ranger’s son, nature left an indelible imprint.
Among the rank and file wearing the National Park Service green and gray, the news also landed hard, because it confirmed that Yellowstone’s existing and admired superintendent of the last seven years, Dan Wenk, was indeed being forced out.
After 42.5 years, Wenk isn’t receiving a gold watch from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke for a career deemed extraordinary by any measure; instead, Zinke and a group of Trump Administration political appointees were serving him walking papers.
Zinke was a mere 14 years old when Wenk, today 66, began his journey in civil service, devoting four decades of his life to looking after national parks. A landscape architect by college training, he earned many of the highest honors for meritorious service along the way, working well with previous Democrat and Republican administrations, Congressional delegations and civic-minded corporate CEOs interested in supporting parks in times of budget shortfalls and growing needs.
Wenk, who served as deputy and acting national director of the 400-unit Park Service, oversaw renovation of the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore, and brokered a land deal along with the families of 9/11 victims to establish a permanent memorial to passengers on Flight 93.
At the Denver Service Center, the construction arm of the Park Service, he restored battered credibility to an institution in crisis and under investigation for fiscal mismanagement. When he took it over, it was doing 20 percent of the work in a $60 million program that exists to chaperone building and infrastructure improvements in the Park System. By the time he left five years later, the Denver Service Center was blueprinting 80 percent of the agency’s total workload with a budget that had grown to $250 million.
A capstone to all of those experiences was being tapped, in 2011, to oversee Yellowstone where there’s no greater challenge to balancing fragile wonders with visitor enjoyment. It is under constant political assault by gateway chambers of commerce, governors and members of Congress in three states that converge on the park borders.
As a twentysomething fresh out of college in the 1970s, Yellowstone was the first parks where he donned the uniform and, with retirement looming to spend more time with his wife and family, he derived no small amount of satisfaction in knowing where his tour of duty would end.
Last week, Wenk got word from Zinke’s controversial acting Park Service director that he had just 60 days to vacate Yellowstone and report to Washington, DC, where he was ordered to oversee the Park Service’s Capital region. [Read Mountain Journal‘s story Forced Out Of Yellowstone]. A demotion, it was handed as an ultimatum by P. Daniel Smith—either accept it or face termination. Read how his options were spelled out in a check-one-of-the-boxes memo at the bottom of this story. Option four: “I decline the reassignment. I understand that I will be subject to removal under adverse action procedure.”
After the circumstances of the heavy-handedness circulated widely in the media, Wenk received an outpouring of sympathy, from active Park Service veterans and retirees to politicians on both sides of the aisle. Were Wenk to answer them all, five at a time daily, it would take years.
Back in Washington, DC. Wednesday, as a reporter caught Zinke on the fly, the Secretary sang Sholly’s credentials (they are impressive) yet dodged questions asking him to explain why he had moved with hostility against Wenk in the 11thhour of his career.
While Interior officials claimed plausible denial that their motivations were punitive, the way that Zinke rolled out Sholly’s appointment, without even mentioning Wenk, cannot be construed any other other way. They are furious that Wenk dared question them—them having underestimated how powerful the idea of Yellowstone is, and having trustworthy stewards in charge of it, resonates with the public.