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Wenk: Tell People What They Need To Hear, Not What They Want To Hear

In Speech At MSU, Yellowstone Park Supt. Dan Wenk Issues A Challenge Saying Time To Save The Ecosystem Is Now

Yellowstone National Park is the place that gives the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem its centrifugal force. While the 22.5-million-acre region is indeed the sum of its parts, without the presence of America’s mother national park and, by dint of miracle, the long list of bio-geological wonders that still exist inside its borders—and transcend them—this part of the country would be just like everywhere else.

Pleasing on the eyes—check; a spot to make a living, recreate and otherwise bide the time—check; a place where, with each passing year and rising human population, leaves it whittled away and less connection to its natural setting.

But as Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk reminds us, this extraordinary region isn’t like that, nor should we accept that its slow, steady disintegration is evitable. For young and old, saving the attributes of Greater Yellowstone should serve as a rallying cry and if we lose it the judgment of future generations will be shame on us.

At Montana State University’s autumn 2017 commencement ceremony in December, Wenk was awarded an honorary doctorate. And during his acceptance speech, he spelled out the challenges in courageous terms that all residents and visitors to Greater Yellowstone ought to heed, especially elected officials.

Here is the text of Wenk’s remarks delivered Dec. 16, 2017 at Montana State University upon earning an honorary PhD for his contributions to protecting Yellowstone. Heed the values he espouses in bullet points below.  —MoJo Eds
Just a small example of the expansive lands Wenk and colleagues oversee and protect.  Views from the Bunsen Peak Trail, Yellowstone National Park.  NPS photo / Jacob W. Frank
Just a small example of the expansive lands Wenk and colleagues oversee and protect. Views from the Bunsen Peak Trail, Yellowstone National Park. NPS photo / Jacob W. Frank
By Dan Wenk, Superintendent, Yellowstone National Park

I've been thinking about what I might have to say....  It's difficult because I've felt like I need to say something important.  And then in conversation with my wife, Barbara, she asked what's the most important thing that you've learned as Superintendent of Yellowstone. She made this easier. Thank you Barbara for that, and so much more.

When Yellowstone was created in 1872 the law ensured that future management would be controversial. Yellowstone...... "dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring ground, for the benefit and enjoyment of the people..."

The law then goes on to say "preservation, from injury or spoilation, of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities or wonders within said park and their retention in natural condition....."now over 145 years later, add over 4 million annual visits and we have values in conflict and controversy surrounding every decision.

The job description suggests that the Superintendent of Yellowstone is a difficult job..... it is a great job.  An opportunity to lead a staff of professionals to protect the world's first national park.  Yes, every decision in Yellowstone is controversial, controversial because decisions matter, and people care deeply. Can you imagine the future of Yellowstone if no one cared?

Bob Barbee a previous Yellowstone Superintendent was asked, ".....science is notoriously expensive, inefficient, and inconclusive.  Where is the payoff for a manager?" He responded, "that's where things become vague, because at any given time, you've got a lot of questions that aren't answered, and decisions still have to be made.  Managers like answers, and science doesn't give you answers, especially right away."  He goes on later to say, "science doesn't give you answers, it gives you information."

Protection and management of public lands has never been more important than it is today. It is as simple and as complex as providing a place to disconnect from our daily world and reconnect with the environment and nature, a place for emotional and, if we are lucky, spiritual renewal. To protect American Native culture and history. To protect public lands that support iconic wildlife in their natural habitats like grizzly bears, wolves, bison, elk and broad landscapes that support wildlife migrations. To protect and restore native fisheries. To protect the incredible thermal and geologic resources of the park.  All while more visitors and residents arrive in the ecosystem. 

The expression of the need to make our voices heard has never been clearer to me than captured by David Quammen and Todd Wilkinson in the National Geographic book "Yellowstone; A Journey through America's Wild Heart." They examine the struggle for protection of Yellowstone and the ecosystem. 

We are at a crossroads in our decision making as a community, a region and a nation in our attitude about protection of wild places. Listen to different voices that represent different constituencies of Yellowstone today. 

A rancher just north of Yellowstone whose family ranched in this area before there was a national park  said, "We love this area and we love the park.  It is really when they started calling it an ecosystem that all the problems began.  People from all over the world having an opinion on how this area should be managed and how we should be ranching, hunting and living our lives.  People that have never once had a grizzly at their front door when their wife walks out to go to work in the morning."  

Another rancher from Belgrade, Montana who said, "We can pick our poison. Castle building landowners who are busily resurrecting a feudal society while chopping up habitat.  Ranchers and politicians who are too quick to put wildlife in the crosshairs as a scapegoat for deeper ills in our agricultural economic systems. Energy companies' boom-and-bust frenzies."  She goes on to say, "It's hard to condemn any one sector without acknowledging the warts and complexities of any other, but collectively we are degrading the magic that's makes this region unique. Can we slow down, scale back, and proceed with less of an air of entitlement?"
"It's hard to condemn any one sector without acknowledging the warts and complexities of any other, but collectively we are degrading the magic that's makes this region unique. Can we slow down, scale back, and proceed with less of an air of entitlement?" —Wenk recalling the words of a rancher from Belgrade, Montana who worries the attributes of Greater Yellowstone could be lost.
All perspectives must be heard. We are all stewards of Yellowstone.  It belongs to all of us... we are coming to decision points on the future management, preservation and use of Yellowstone. The least studied species in Yellowstone is the human.  We don't yet understand the affect of record visitation on either the visitor experience or the resources we protect.  If we don't understand these interrelationships, we may diminish, perhaps irreparably, the very things that attract people worldwide to this one-of-a-kind national park.

We have to protect this park and this ecosystem. That's my job and our collective obligation. We have to find the right balance between preservation and use. We have to make long term decisions not just within the boundaries of Yellowstone but throughout the ecosystem. Not just as federal land managers, but as individuals, and local, regional, state and federal agencies and governments that affirm the importance of public lands;  not as a relic of the past but as a hope for our future. We need your continued engagement.

Because every commencement address needs advice and platitudes I'll leave you with a few "words to live by" that continue to serve me well:

° Tell people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear;

° Contribute to things bigger than yourselves;

° It’s easy to make decisions when you know what your values are;

° When you find yourself on the side of the majority, it's time to pause and reflect;

° If you are not at the table you are on the menu;

° Setting an example is not the main means of influencing others, it's the only means;

° Misery is optional.

Throughout my career I've chosen optimism and engagement related to the National Park Service.  It's those choices that I believe brought me here before you today.  Thank you again for this honor and I hope as you embark on the next phase of your lives, you will be a part of Yellowstone's and public land's future.  We need you and the park deserves you!
About Dan Wenk

Dan Wenk is the superintendent of Yellowstone National Park
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