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Ryan Zinke Scores A Pyrrhic Victory In Yellowstone
June 14, 2018
Ryan Zinke Scores A Pyrrhic Victory In Yellowstone
After ousting Dan Wenk over bison, Interior Secretary now must decide: will he stand behind his controversial National Park Service Director?
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.
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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.
Zinke and his Interior political appointees are furious that Wenk dared question them—them having underestimated how powerful the idea of Yellowstone is, and the importance of having trustworthy stewards in charge of it, resonates with the public.
Zinke and colleagues have acknowledged Wenk’s reassignment was part of a larger “re-organization” strategy intended to “shake-up” senior management in Interior bureaus, similar to the bureaucratic putsch, observers say, being carried out at the Environmental Protection Agency by its controversial chief administrator Scott Pruitt.
Zinke also announced that he would reconfigure regional offices (which attracted much criticism) and move more junior employees in the bureaus under his command, like the Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and the USDA sister agency, the Forest Service, out into the West. Many have noted that one of the chronic complaints registered by the Bureaus of Land Management and Forest Service is that they have lacked sufficient manpower to process and expedite industry proposals to drill for oil and gas, open new hardrock mines and expand coal leases.
Zinke’s priorities need no speculation. Last year, while speaking at a conference before petroleum industry executives in Texas, he, only months into his tenure as one of President Donald Trump’s cabinet secretaries, declared that he believed a third of Interior’s 70,000 employees were “disloyal to the flag.”
Many interpreted that to mean, given his audience and the fact he also announced an aggressive agenda to dramatically expand oil and gas drilling and resurrect the moribund coal industry, that those not in full agreement with his direction, were also being unpatriotic.
Yellowstone bison are the only major wildlife species in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem not allowed to naturally migrate seasonally. Over 11,000 park buffalo have been shot or slaughtered based on the now-disproved assertion they represent an eminent threat to private Montana cattle. Photo courtesy Neal Herbert / NPS
It’s worth noting, perhaps, that the official flag of the Interior Department features a bison, America’s newly-designated national mammal. Wenk has been outspoken in his support for trying to advance the conservation of buffalo as a species. It’s reportedly one of the things that drew him within the crosshairs of Zinke, who is sympathetic to a carefully-orchestrated populist revolt on the plains of eastern Montana by ranchers; it’s objective: using Bundyesque fear tactics to thwart Yellowstone bison from being relocated there as seedstock for building new public herds.
In cattle country where four or five generations of pioneer roots have supplanted 12,000 years of natural history, American bison, once the most populous large grazing animal on earth, are looked upon as exotic foreign beasts.
In cattle country where four or five generations of pioneer roots have supplanted 12,000 years of natural history, American bison, once the most populous large grazing animal on earth, are looked upon as exotic foreign beasts.
There is no better example than the debate over the American Prairie Reserve’s hopes of being able to have its growing wild bison herd near Lewiston utilize grazing allotments on federal BLM tracts near the C.M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge—the same as cattle do.
A self-proclaimed “public relations-political consulting-government affairs” firm called The Montana Group has hatched different non-profits which have not revealed who their major financial supporters are. One is “Count On Coal Montana,” involved with promoting coal mining (and denying climate change) and another, “United Property Rights of Montana,” calls itself a zealous advocate for private property rights, using demonstrably misleading information about bison restoration as a central rallying cry.
Heather Swift is Ryan Zinke's chief Interior Department spokesperson. But in 2016, when Zinke was still a U.S. Congressman from Montana, she served as his communications director. And she made clear her sentiments and those of Zinke in a tweet.
The three bulwark strategists of The Montana Group are Chuck Denowh, former executive director of the Montana Republican Party, head of the GOP caucus in the legislature and campaign roles with state attorney general Tim Fox and U.S. Sen. Steve Daines; former GOP legislator, and board member of realtor and fossil fuel organizations Dennis Iverson; and Shelby Demars, communications director for Zinke’s successful 2014 campaign for Montana’s lone U.S. House seat in Congress and campaign manager for Tim Fox’s re-election as the state’s top elected lawyer.
Demars also is a close friend of Zinke’s Interior Press Secretary Heather Swift, who previously had also served on Zinke’s congressional team. On Facebook she also identifies herself as executive director of Montana Oil, Gas and Coal Counties. The reach of those involved with The Montana Group stretches in many different directions. It's spinoff, United Property Owners of Montana (UPOM), even got involved in the fray over the city of Missoula's quest to control its only water supply.
Missoula was locked in a battle with the Carlyle Group, a powerful global asset company, based in Washington DC. Why was UPOM involved? And who is behind them?
Mayor Jon Engen told The MIssoulian. “This case is about the people of Missoula controlling their water future. UPOM’s leadership appears to consist of eastern Montana ranchers who likely do not use any municipal water system, let alone Montana’s only privately owned water monopoly, They have no stake in the outcome of this case, and no say in Missoula’s water future.”
Denowh was contacted for this story but did not return a phone call. Had he been reached, he would have been asked if there is any connection between Wenk’s removal from Yellowstone and his advocacy for re-establishing bison herds.
Denowh, in comments to reporters and in op-eds he’s penned for United Property Owners of Montana, has opposed the American Prairie Reserve’s request to graze bison the same as private cattle on public lands. He wrote, "Not only would the proposal cause destruction of rangeland and wildlife habitat, ultimately the APR represents a fundamental threat to the Montana ranching families who’ve made this area their home for generations."
Denowh has also implied that Yellowstone bison headed to Fort Peck could cause containment issues and property damage, and he has falsely portrayed wandering Yellowstone bison as representing the eminent risk for passing along brucellosis to private cattle, when the findings of two separate National Academies of Sciences reports clearly show that risk resides with elk.
Denowh has made a lot of claims involving bison that, upon analysis, do not hold up to scrutiny and will be examined here in future stories. Many believe that Zinke is trying to forestall the reintroduction of bison to appease his base in eastern Montana, which could prove crucial should he decide to run for governor or a Senate seat in the future.
Jayson O'Neill, deputy director of Western Values Project, says such appeasement was visible in his decision to shrink national monuments. In this case, he says Wenk became a casualty. “This is yet another example of Secretary Zinke giving favors to a handful of special interests at the expense of our most cherished and revered national park. Undermining one of Teddy Roosevelt’s most significant legacies for former political allies shows how Secretary Zinke is abusing his position as the steward of America’s public lands," O'Neill claims.
One Interior veteran, who shall not be named out of fear of retaliation, told me that Zinke’s plans to move Wenk and nearly three dozen other elite leaders in land management agencies at other posts, is deliberately intended to weaken a deeply-engrained conservation ethic and replace it with people more conducive to the Secretary’s promotion of natural resource extraction.
An Inspector General report, launched in the aftermath of the proposed shake-up, concluded Interior’s maneuvers had no obvious rationale and could easily be interpreted as action done with punitive intent or to force some into accelerated retirement.
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To be clear, there are no hard feelings between Sholly and Wenk. They have mutual admiration for each other. Wenk immediately issued a statement Wednesday praising Sholly, welcoming him back to the community where he came of age (he graduated from Gardiner High School) and wishing him the best. That, after all, is what people of class, character and integrity in the Park Service have done for generations.
Michael V. Finley, one of the most respected Park Service careerists of the last half century and a legendary Yellowstone superintendent, however, offered a blistering assessment of Zinke’s apparent agenda. It is being orchestrated, he said, with the help of political appointees, including former lobbyists and attorneys who previously sued the federal government on behalf of resource industry clients and/or have raised doubts about human-caused climate change.
Finley says it is vitally important that those who admire Wenk for his protection of Yellowstone, and who believe he’s been made a casualty of an ethically-challenged Trump Administration, not make the mistake of engaging in false equivalency.
It would be a gross error for citizen advocates of Yellowstone to hold a grudge against Sholly for what happened to Wenk. Sholly is worthy to oversee Yellowstone. “He’s got the right stuff,” he said. At the same time, Finley added, what happened to Wenk at the hands of Zinke needs “to be called out, condemned, and exposed.”
Finley says it would be a gross error for citizen advocates of Yellowstone to hold a grudge against Cameron Sholly for what happened to Dan Wenk
During his 32-year-career with the Park Service, before he took a job as president of Ted Turner’s Turner Family Foundation for 15 years, Finley was hailed as a star. The only Park Service leader in modern times to prestigiously be superintendent of “the big three wildlife parks”—Yellowstone, Yosemite and Everglades— he commanded respect from both Republican and Democratic administrations in the White House.
On good terms with George H.W. Bush, Finley, while superintendent of Everglades National Park, won approval from the president’s Interior Department to sustain a suit against powerful sugar cane growers in Florida whose water diversion practices were destroying and polluting America’s greatest freshwater ecosystem.
In Yosemite, Finley pushed to rein in traffic congestions that had despoiled the visitor experience in Yosemite Valley and in Yellowstone he opposed construction of the New World Mine on the park’s back doorstep, was there when wolves were brought back and he condemned the slaughter of thousands of bison when they left Yellowstone and went into Montana.
A lifelong sportsman, Finley helped establish the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (appealing to hunters and anglers drawn to the ethos of Theodore Roosevelt), the Outdoor Alliance (focused on promoting conservation in the outdoor retail industry) and even promoting peace between North and South Korea, using the amazing array of wildlife that exists inside the DMZ to embrace a common natural identity.
Today, Finley is chairman of the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission and has been vocal in pointing out the changes happening in ocean water temperature and chemistry that are harming zooplankton—the building blocks of life—and imperiling the future of ocean fisheries. The cause: climate change heating them up and carbon dioxide pollution acidifying the seas.
All is this is mentioned because Finley, as much as any American, has a novel big-picture perspective on not only the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem but public lands and the intersection between ecology and economy.
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The outstanding questions he has relating to Wenk are not only why, but who made the decision to transfer him; why did he/she/they go about it so crassly and, most importantly, why no one in Trump’s Interior Department wants to discuss it publicly?
Interior spokesperson Heather Swift told Mountain Journal there will be no comment because it’s “a personnel matter”—but an issue that Wenk himself says he is open to publicly discuss.
Memoranda dispatched from the Interior Department in early June outlining Wenk’s forced transfer do little to reasonably explain the rationale.
Here is a fact, confirmed by recently-retired Yellowstone historian Lee Whittlesey who has pored through the archives pertaining to every Yellowstone superintendent going back to Nathaniel P. Langford in 1872. Yes, transfers are part of the Senior Executive Service (SES) system, created a few decades ago to groom more dynamic elite leadership in government.
But what happened to Wenk mades no sense and has no historic precedent considering that he was just months away from retirement and had been tasked by Zinke with, among other things, helping to get a new bison management plan written in cooperation with the state of Montana, incorporating the latest science. Whittlesey says that in modern times, no superintendent has ever left the park unless the individual requested or applied for a transfer. Many remained in Yellowstone until they retired because it is considered as prestigious a post as Park Service director.
“If a person becomes superintendent of Yellowstone, it is universally accepted that they have earned their way and can handle the pressure, and will not gratuitously be messed with unless you commit a crime or cause a scandal,” he said.
My longtime contacts tell me that people close to Zinke’s inner circle knew the conditions of transfer for Wenk and a handful of other senior leaders (including the forced transfers of regional directors) would be deemed so untenable that they would have no other choice but to retire. “No one,” one source said, “would interpret Wenk’s transfer from Yellowstone to be regional director in D.C. as a promotion or accolade, unless you have no understanding of the Park Service.”
“No one,” one source said, “would interpret Wenk’s transfer from Yellowstone to be regional director in D.C. as a promotion or accolade, unless you have no understanding of the Park Service.”
In light of Zinke’s emphasis on demanding complete loyalty, anyone who might conceivably challenge instructions that are tantamount to weakening environmental protection, the Park Service mission and the spirit of their duty as civil servants, might be viewed, by him, as insubordinate.
Wenk not only embraced the quarantine protocol for Yellowstone bison in order to spare brucellosis-free animals coming out of the park from slaughter, but, because of their pure genetics, he hoped that other bison populations could be re-established on the prairie in the heart of their native range. He also raised concerns about grizzlies in Yellowstone and Grand Teton, which delight millions of wildlife watchers, getting shot by sport hunters if they move beyond park boundaries. And he even expressed deep concern about legislative proposals that would force open Yellowstone waterways to packrafters.
“Settling in and around Yellowstone National Park and then complaining about free-ranging wildlife is like knowingly moving next to a U.S. Air Force base and complaining about noise,” Finley said. “Yellowstone is not a bad neighbor. It is the foundation upon which the greatness of the region exists. It always gnawed on me that some in gateway communities cast Yellowstone as a bad neighbor but Yellowstone was created before the states existed and its health depends on cooperation from its neighbors. A park superintendent shouldn’t be portrayed as being obstinate or a troublemaker for following the laws he is charged to uphold. It’s absurd.”
If Zinke regards stewards like Wenk as disloyal to carrying out his short-term political agenda, readers can decide for themselves what it says about the Secretary and his controversial lieutenants at Interior—David Bernhardt and Susan Combs, both veterans in representing the interests of resources extraction industries.
Bernhardt and Combs together have been part of efforts to undermine the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Endangered Species Act and there are rumors they may try to rewrite the Park Service Organic Act of 1916—the law that sets protection of nature as a priority in national parks.
In an earlier iteration of being a Schedule C political appointee, serving the George W. Bush Administration, Bernhardt served as an Interior Solicitor at the same time that coal industry lobbyist J. Steven Griles, second in command to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, was sentenced to prison after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice charges in the notorious Jack Abramoff scandal that involving allegations of buying government influence. Norton, too, came under scrutiny and severe criticism for her cozy relationship with Royal Dutch Shell which was actively engaged during tenure in trying to win government approval for oil shale and other projects. After she left Interior, Norton went to work for the company.
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Zinke today finds himself in a real pickle, for along with Bernhardt and Combs, the person who allegedly penned and signed the order for Wenk’s transfer is Acting Park Service Director Danny Smith.
But it’s a recent IG probe, the results soon to be released, that raises questions about Zinke’s integrity and who he stands behind.
Smith earlier this year was seen allegedly grabbing his crotch and then pretending to urinate on the walls in the Interior Building hallway—which critics say is not exactly becoming behavior for the top person in charge of 400 different national park units. In anticipation of the IG report’s release, Smith emailed an apology to 20,000 Park Service workers acknowledging his conduct was “inappropriate.”
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Now a few words about Wenk’s replacement, Cam Sholly.
Decades ago when Finley was superintendent of Yosemite, Cam Sholly was also working in that crown jewel national park in the Sierra Nevada, but as a lowly seasonal ranger. A young man at the time, he was seeking to find a direction.
Finley learned that Sholly had aspirations of seeking a permanent ranger position in Yosemite Valley. Before Finley offered one to him, he asked Sholly to make a promise—that he would receive a four-year undergraduate degree, which he did. Later, when Sholly applied for a master’s program at Duke University, he asked Finley for a letter of recommendation and Finley gladly wrote one.
Sholly keenly understands the special culture of the Park Service because he lived it. He started as a grunt maintenance worker in Yellowstone at the same time his father, Dan Sholly, was the park’s chief ranger. Dan Sholly’s boss was Mike Finley.
Still, the departure of Dan Wenk and arrival of Cam Sholly in Yellowstone is filled with irony, Finley says. The very hard work ethic, depth of experience, level of integrity, demonstrated ability to problem-solve and understanding the unparalleled nature of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem—and what’s at stake— is present in Sholly. But it is writ ever larger in Wenk, he notes.
Such qualities are lacking, Finley believes, in Acting Park Service Director Smith. Yet Zinke stands firmly behind him. “Dan [Smith] has a strong record of leadership in the National Park Service both in Washington and on the front lines as a superintendent of a park that tells the stories of some of the most consequential moments in American history,” Zinke said in a press release on January 9, 2018. “I can think of no one better equipped to help lead our efforts to ensure that the National Park Service is on firm footing to preserve and protect the most spectacular places in the United States for future generations.”
Just a few days later, a Park Service employee reported, in an anonymous email that the Acting Director “grabbed his crotch and his penis and acted out as though he was urinating on the wall” of the Interior Building. Noted the Washington Post in a story: “The employee wrote he or she chose not to sign the letter for fear of reprisal from within the Park Service, a division in the sprawling Interior Department. ‘I wish I could come forward,’ the worker wrote, ‘but retaliation is real.’ Again, Smith could not deny it happened, for he issued an agency-wide apology.”
“I have known Dan Smith for a long time. I have no personal ill will toward him, but he is one of the least qualified persons I can think of professionally to be acting or permanent director of the National Park Service,” Finley said. “Ironically, if anyone were to be named director of the Park Service, from the cadre of active possibilities, it should be Dan Wenk. He’s had a spectacular career. He is honest and one of the most conscientious I have known.”
Finley says a Wenk would win resounding praise in the active and retired ranks of the Park Service as well as the agency’s millions of advocates.
“Using the philosophy of SES [the leadership-building program], it’s important to develop our managers and give them mobility on the way up, but if it’s done in a way that isn’t foremost in the best interests of the employees or done punitively, then it’s wrong,” he explained. “The philosophy, which appears to be Ryan Zinke’s, that if you can direct and manage a candy factory it means you can also command an aircraft carrier is bankrupt on its face. Wenk has built his experience and credibility the hard way through decades of successful assignments at all levels to reach the top. Dan Smith’s doesn’t compare to Dan Wenk’s. Dan Smith was selected to do Zinke’s bidding. A Park Service director should not be a handmaiden to the Secretary.”
If Zinke truly subscribes to the tenets of honor, integrity, bravery and valor that he claims to evince as a former Navy Seal, he should at least have the courage to call Wenk. When a person gives the axe to another unjustly, there is a right and a wrong way to bury the hatchet, he said. Zinke could demonstrate that he believes in decency and recognizes what Wenk has given in service to his country. History will remember how he resolved a mess of his own creation.
“Zinke says he has tremendous admiration for those who serve their country in uniform. Well, I and tens of thousands of others am proud to call myself a veteran of the Park Service,” Finley said. “Over a century, we tried to recruit some of the best-educated, most highly motivated and thoughtful employees to enter our ranks. We’ve energized them and often reassigned them in the development phase of their careers to enhance their experience and ability to deliver better results for the citizens who pay their salary. Most people see their work for the Park Service as a calling,” Finley said.
After he pause, he added, “My fear is that this secretary and the administration will do anything possible to undermine the stewardship philosophy of the rank and file employees. If they are successful in doing this, then the very image of noble government service that is so engrained in Park Service identity will become that of just another bureaucratic agency.”
That is bad enough, he said, but the net effect is worse. “Not only will they destroy the quality of the personnel and its morale, but by doing so remove dedicated protectors of the resources and allow erosion to effect the assets inside them and the quality of the park experience. In Yellowstone, we’re talking about the ecological integrity of the park and its connectedness to other lands. The Trump Administration says it will provide money for infrastructure, to repair roads and buildings, but the real infrastructure that holds our national parks together isn’t bricks and mortar, it begins with good people. That infrastructure is crumbling. It’s evident in what’s happening to Dan Wenk.”
EPILOGUE: On June 4, 2018, the day that the Interior Department notified Wenk of his forced transfer via email, documents were forwarded by the Park Service’s executive resources manager, Patricia B. Casey, along with an attached quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Without ambition one starts nothing. Without work, one finishes nothing. The prize will not be sent to you. You have to win it.”
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EDITOR'S NOTE: Here is the memo sent to Wenk starkly laying out his options for how his career would end. "They treated him as if he had become a problem," Finley said. "He wanted to retire from Yellowstone. He deserved to be here and yet this administration, through its own crass self-interest, treated him with malice. This isn't how brilliant careers are supposed to end."