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Forced Out Of Yellowstone

Despite Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk’s desire to end his 42-year-career in America’s first national park, Ryan Zinke’s Interior Department still demands he leave

Against his will, in violation of an informal “gentleman’s agreement,” and amid public outrage, Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk has received notification from the U.S. Interior Department informing him that he is being forcibly re-assigned to a regional director post with the National Park Service in Washington D.C.


In the order issued Monday, June 4 by acting National Park Service Director Danny Smith and approved by David L. Bernhardt, second in command to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Wenk was told he must vacate Yellowstone and re-report to the nation’s capital by early August. Read all of the memos at the bottom of this story.

Wenk told Mountain Journal Thursday he finds the actions heavy-handed and untenable. Instead, he will step down from government service in the coming weeks.

“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 said, referring to Zinke’s Interior Department. “Throughout my career, I’ve not encountered anything like this, ever.”
“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 said, referring to Zinke’s Interior Department. “Throughout my career, I’ve not encountered anything like this, ever.”
Last week in an attempt to forestall the unwelcomed transfer after spending 42.5 years with the Park Service, Wenk made a counterproposal to retire from the top job in Yellowstone next March, providing a period of transition for both he and his successor. That proposal was rejected.

The events bring a startling end to a long and distinguished career for Wenk, who is 66.  

Never in the modern history of America’s oldest national park has a Yellowstone superintendent essentially been forced out at the climax of a brilliant career. Most of Wenk’s recent predecessors voluntarily retired from Yellowstone because it is considered the premiere field position in the Park Service and a job of high honor.  

Wenk’s compromise offer was seen as a gambit, a test of Zinke’s Interior Department. Would it allow a widely-respected public servant like Wenk to retire with dignity and complete the key tasks he was assigned by Zinke himself? 

Or would Zinke and his political appointees, as a demonstration of their unchecked power, punish Wenk ostensibly because of his outspoken support for conservation that riled some in Republican circles?

Since late winter, Wenk has known that he was the target of a forced transfer, though no one at Interior offered him a rationale for it, he said. Initially, it came to him only as a rumor.

Soon after Zinke’s appointment to his cabinet post was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 2017, he moved forward with nearly three dozen controversial transfers of top executive level civil servants, vowing that it would result in better management. 

Critics claimed it was a thinly-veiled attempt to undermine a number of agencies that have a mission of environmental protection at their core.

Acting Park Service Director Danny Smith, a subject in two Inspector General investigations, promised Wenk he had his back covered, but didn't, Wenk says.
Acting Park Service Director Danny Smith, a subject in two Inspector General investigations, promised Wenk he had his back covered, but didn't, Wenk says.
This move, insiders say, appears to have been spearheaded by Smith and Bernhardt, the latter who, through his role with the Executive Resources Board, oversees all high-ranking career employees who are part of the Senior Executive Service. Wenk is at the highest level of the SES and while the classification allows Interior Secretaries to move elite managers around with only a 60-day notice, it is seldom done in a punitive way.

The Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General found that the proposed moves had no obvious justification or rationale and that they were made merely at the whim of Zinke and staff. Here is what investigators with the Inspector General concluded:

“The Executive Resources Board reassigned 27 senior executives without a written plan or clear criteria, and without consulting with the departmental leadership who oversaw the affected senior executives or with the affected SES members. With no documented action plan for the reassignments and inconsistent statements from the ERB regarding its rationale, we were prevented from making a clear determination whether or not the DOI met the legal requirements. The [board’s] failure to document its decisions and to adhere to [government code] guidance…resulted in the perception by a majority of the affected SES members that the reassignments were prompted by political or punitive reasons, or were related to their proximity to retirement.”

Just as Zinke has demonstrated historic disregard for the federal Antiquities Act, first invoked by President Theodore Roosevelt early in the 20thcentury to safeguard special pieces of America as national monuments, Trump’s Interior Secretary is also targeting one of the most venerated agencies in the federal government.

Former Park Service national director Jon Jarvis says the maneuver with Wenk is about more than “shaking up” management in the Park Service; it is intended to send a chilling message, making an example out of Wenk to the rank and file, that no one is safe. “Zinke holds little regard for the esprit de corps traditions of the Park Service that has made it not only one of the most respected,” he said. “Dan [Wenk] was set up as the first domino to fall.”
Former Park Service national director Jon Jarvis says the maneuver with Wenk is about more than “shaking up” management in the Park Service; it is intended to send a chilling message, making an example out of Wenk to the rank and file that no one is safe.
Wenk has told me in several interviews how much he relished the challenges of his job in Yellowstone, that while it wasn’t easy, the public passions it generates shows how much universally treasured America’s first national park is. 

Once Zinke became Interior Secretary he visited Yellowstone and tasked Wenk with the daunting task of trying to put in place a new bison management plan that would end decades of controversy as well as needless killing of Yellowstone’s iconic animal and the nation’s official national mammal.

“The Secretary told me to get a new approach to managing bison across the goal line and that he had my back,” Wenk said. In fact, this commitment he made to Zinke and other reasons was why Wenk informed the Interior Department last week that he would retire in March 2019 and needed nine months to get those important tasks accomplished.
After decades of needless slaughter resulting in the deaths of more than 11,000 Yellowstone bison, Dan Wenk had devoted the final months of his 42-year-career to getting a new bison management plan written with Montana that would bring more tolerance for bison outside the park and reduce the annual death toll.  In fact, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke tasked Wenk with getting it done.
After decades of needless slaughter resulting in the deaths of more than 11,000 Yellowstone bison, Dan Wenk had devoted the final months of his 42-year-career to getting a new bison management plan written with Montana that would bring more tolerance for bison outside the park and reduce the annual death toll. In fact, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke tasked Wenk with getting it done.
Wenk is known both for his passion and even temper. He tried to arrive at creative solutions with his Interior superiors, he said.

Within recent weeks, Wenk asked for, and received, a three-way telephone conversation with Smith and Cameron Sholly, current director of the Park Service’s Midwest region in Omaha.  

Sholly has been tapped to replace Wenk at Yellowstone. He is the son of former Yellowstone Chief Ranger Dan Sholly and is considered well liked, competent and familiar with the Yellowstone region. He started his Park Service career working for the Yellowstone maintenance division.

Wenk said the meeting with Smith and Sholly was cordial. “Everyone recognized the importance of making a smooth transition. The three of us forged what I would call a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ that I would retire from Yellowstone in March 2019 and Cam would come on board then. Acting Director Smith indicated that he supported it, that he would take it back to Interior and recommend that it be adopted.” Wenk said.

Deputy Interior Secretary Susan Combs, a Texan who has deep ties to natural resources extraction industries, is another behind the forced transfer of Dan Wenk. Photo courtesy Gage Skidmore
Deputy Interior Secretary Susan Combs, a Texan who has deep ties to natural resources extraction industries, is another behind the forced transfer of Dan Wenk. Photo courtesy Gage Skidmore
It now appears that Smith either didn’t follow through on the promise he made or that it was overruled by another person acting as one of Zinke’s top lieutenants. Susan Combs, a former Texas Comptroller and now Interior’s assistant secretary for policy, management and budget, told Wenk a few days ago she had no knowledge of the gentleman’s agreement. 

When asked what he thinks happened, Wenk shared, “I told Dan Smith on the phone afterward that somebody is lying, either he didn’t bring the agreement to the attention of his superiors and stand behind it as he promised he would, or Susan Combs knew about it and didn’t tell me the truth.”

P. Daniel Smith garnered a notorious reputation during his earlier stint with the Park Service. He was accused of retaliating against Park Service employees who blew the whistle on Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, who illegally cut down trees on a scenic conservation easement along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park.  

When Zinke brought Smith out of retirement to serve as acting national director, his re-emergence attracted immediate scorn from Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility which has closely followed Smith and an Inspector General probe into his conduct. 

"It is disturbing but perhaps indicative that the Trump people would resurrect a political hatchet man to take the helm at the National Park Service,” Ruch told National Parks Traveler. “In the Snyder-gate affair, Smith demonstrated a complete lack of respect for protecting park resources or for following established safeguards," Ruch said. "It is also noteworthy that the IG investigators found Smith to be untruthful and that his mendacity prolonged the investigation at taxpayer expense— showing a troubling comfort level with alternative facts.”
Acting Park Service Director Dan Smith attracted an investigation from the Inspector General after witnesses said he grabbed his crotch while walking down the hall of the Interior Department and pretended to be mock-urinating on the wall. He emailed an apology to all Park Service employees.
Smith is the subject of another Inspector General investigation. This one involves an allegation that in January 2018 while walking a hall at the Interior Department in Washington he grabbed and clutched his genitals then pretended to mock-urinate on the wall. It was witnessed by two people. The IG findings are expected soon but in an attempt to pre-empt them, he issued a public apology, via email, sent to all 20,000 Park Service employees, acknowledging what he did was "inappropriate."

"As a leader, I must hold myself to the highest standard of behavior in the workplace,” Smith wrote. “I take my responsibility to create and maintain a respectful, collegial work environment very seriously. Moving forward, I promise to do better.”
  
David Bernhardt, as Ryan Zinke's second in command at Interior, is said to be one of the architects behind the shake-up of Park Service personnel.
David Bernhardt, as Ryan Zinke's second in command at Interior, is said to be one of the architects behind the shake-up of Park Service personnel.
Bernhardt himself is a controversial political appointee. An attorney by profession, he has sued the Interior Department on behalf of resource extraction companies represented by his law firm and he served at the Interior Department as its solicitor during the George W. Bush Administration when there were several scandals.

At his confirmation hearing, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington State raised questions about potential conflicts of interests involving Bernhardt since he is now radically changing policies which benefit industries he also represented as a lobbyist. 

Mountain Journal reached out to the Interior Department for a response relating to its interactions with Wenk.  Zinke’s spokesperson Heather Swift responded by email with this statement: “The Department does not discuss personnel matters.”

Wenk said he welcomes the Interior Department sharing its rationale publicly. Why Zinke, Smith, Bernhardt and Combs rejected the option of peaceable transition and pressed to transfer Wenk anyway is not yet known. No compelling explanation, Wenk said, has ever been offered to him.

“I was stunned by the way this came down this week. Dan Smith called me with the decision after I sent my proposed retirement plan and I asked him, ‘When do you want me gone from Yellowstone?’ and he said you need to be out by early August,” Wenk said. “Then he said you can still be in Yellowstone as a tourist but you will no longer be superintendent.”

At that point, Wenk told him he planned to outright retire early. “My integrity is at stake here. The Washington capital region of the Park Service is a great region, full of great parks and great people. It includes the White House and The National Mall, but that’s not the point. Being a successful leader as regional director requires a three- to five-year commitment and it would be an honor for someone moving up the ranks. It would be a good training ground for overseeing a park like Yellowstone or becoming director.”

In contrast to acting director Smith's remarks about proper conduct, Wenk in December 2017 was awarded an honorary doctorate by Montana State University in Bozeman, hailed for his extraordinary vision and leadership by MSU President Waded Cruzado. MSU is located in Zinke's home state. 

Wenk, who was featured in the May 2016 edition of National Geographic devoted entirely to Yellowstone, is considered an exemplar of the modern enlightened conservation ethic. It is based on the fact that the health of wildland parks is affected by forces that transcend artificial human-drawn boundaries and that the wellbeing of wildlife in places like Yellowstone depends on smart management outside the park.

"Dan Wenk has been a statesman in an extremely difficult job--steady and wise and courageous and principled—and losing him from Yellowstone is a kick in the gut for anyone who cares about America’s natural glories,” said writer David Quammen, author of the 2016 National Geographic article and which ranks among the most widely read issues in the storied history of the yellow magazine.

The Park Service has been involved with plenty of issues out of the park, with things like management of bison, grizzlies, wolves and development and that is something this administration does not like, Jarvis said. “Doing what Dan and his predecessors have done is absolutely the right thing to do if you care about Yellowstone, but Zinke wants to keep Yellowstone contained in a box and butt out of issues. That kind of mentality goes against the grain of the very concept of ecosystem management that Yellowstone has played a global role in pioneering.” 

“Everything you do in Yellowstone is controversial and thank god—it’s because people care,” Wenk said. “People care so passionately about everything. When we started native fish restoration, I thought ‘who could be against it?’ You wouldn’t believe the outpouring or with bison or wolves or grizzly bears or winter use. You don’t do anything without groups or individuals expressing a position or belief. And you know what, often times when you listen it expands your perspective.”
Monitor Peak at sunset—one view from Yellowstone headquarters at Mammoth Hot Springs. For Wenk, working as superintendent of Yellowstone was the highest honor a Park Service veteran could have and every day he didn't flinch or lament the controversies but saw them as a way to build upon Yellowstone's rising beloved status among American people. He saw flickers of light flash in the eyes of visitors when they realized the country's first national park belonged to them too.
Monitor Peak at sunset—one view from Yellowstone headquarters at Mammoth Hot Springs. For Wenk, working as superintendent of Yellowstone was the highest honor a Park Service veteran could have and every day he didn't flinch or lament the controversies but saw them as a way to build upon Yellowstone's rising beloved status among American people. He saw flickers of light flash in the eyes of visitors when they realized the country's first national park belonged to them too.
Wenk said that as a senior manager he has transferred employees to other positions. Sometimes, they didn’t want to leave. But he always offered them the opportunity to talk about the moves, to weigh the pros and cons, to feel as if they were being heard and respected.  

Because the Park Service and other federal land management agencies are modeled after the military structure, the prospect of deployment to other posts over the course of a career comes with the terrain. Wenk has uprooted his family many times as he worked his way up.

 The way that Interior handled his transfer violated the traditional professional norms, he said, and it leaves him feeling angry and betrayed by Smith.

Rick Smith (no relation to Danny) is a retired Park Service careerist who spent decades with the agency, including a stint as acting superintendent of Yellowstone. He responded with incredulity. 

“The ‘offer’—really an ultimatum—given to Dan Wenk to accept the position, is a poorly-crafted attempt to force his retirement,” Smith said.” He has already served with distinction as the deputy national director of the Park Service and was acting national director. The invitation to spend his last days with the agency in Washington D.C., what should be a celebration of an outstanding career, is an insult.”
“The only reason Zinke should’ve been thinking of bringing Dan back to D.C. at all is to make him permanent Park Service director. That would’ve boosted morale inside the agency at a time when it is tanking.”
Jarvis said that given Wenk’s experience as acting national director, as a key figure in planning for the Park Service Centennial in 2016, in overseeing major renovations of Mount Rushmore and the Statue of Liberty, and for serving seven years in Yellowstone, qualifies him for just one move. “The only reason Zinke should’ve been thinking of bringing Dan back to D.C. at all is to make him permanent Park Service director,” Jarvis said. “That would’ve boosted morale inside the agency at a time when it is tanking.”

For all of the times that Zinke has referenced the “code of honor” present in the Navy Seals, where he once served, the Park Service has an equal level of honor and tradition, Jarvis and Smith noted. 

One prominent former Republican official with the U.S. Interior Department described Zinke’s move with Wenk as akin to removing a four-star general from top command and re-assigning him to oversee an Air Force base. While the U.S. Capitol region of the Park Service is prestigious, it is less heralded than Yellowstone.

“Dan does not deserve this kind of treatment. It is just another in the long line of bad decisions by Secretary Zinke,” added Smith, now a member of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks. It is comprised of retired Park Service leaders who cumulatively have more than 30,000 years of hard-earned management experience. 

Jarvis, who retired from government service in 2016, said the attitude at the Interior Department is unprecedented. He worked for the Park Service during the 1980s when the embattled James Watt oversaw Interior.

The Park Service, because of its high regard by the public, has historically been able to avoid political heavy handedness, Jarvis said.  “Some ideologues particularly didn’t and still don't like the Park Service’s independence. This is something that nearly every Secretary over time has come to resent because the Park Service has a broad and deep constituency that tends to be bi-partisan.”

Reflecting for a moment, Jarvis added, “What’s different now versus the era of Watt is that these political appointees are more sophisticated in their agenda of unwinding environmental and conservation policy of the nation,” Jarvis said. “During the Jim Watt era, there was no secrecy. He was a firebrand. Those in the Trump Administration are more insidious and they are doing all they can to dodge accountability and transparency. Sunlight is a great disinfectant. What we really need now, more than ever, are high beams of scrutiny applied by the public, the media and lawmakers.”

As for Dan Wenk, after he takes off the distinctive Park Service uniform for the last time in coming weeks, he and his wife will resettle to a retirement home they purchased in South Dakota to be near their children and grandchildren. He never imagined leaving Yellowstone as an exile. 

EDITOR'S NOTE: Read the follow-up to this story Ryan Zinke Scores A Pyrrhic Victory In Yellowstone.  And please remember:


ADDED NOTE: Below are memoranda from Interior Department officials Informing Dan Wenk of his forced transfer from Yellowstone to Washington, D.C.




Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition. For more on his career, click below. (Photo by David J Swift).
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