After 42.5 years toiling for the same company, doing exceptional, laudatory things on behalf of the clients who pay his salary, most employees would at least get a gold watch of gratitude.
It’s the noble American thing to do, the decent thing, and it reflects as much on the values and character of those giving out the recognition as the person receiving it.
I’ve been on the phone in recent days talking to two-dozen people, asking them for their interpretation of what happened to Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk.
Ryan Zinke and the Interior Secretary’s political appointees in Washington, D.C., decided Wenk needed to be removed from America’s first and highest-profile national park.
Wenk himself was notified that he’d been officially replaced via an Interior Department press release that was emailed out, and which didn’t even mention his name. It said the next Yellowstone superintendent would be Cameron “Cam” Sholly, the current Park Service Midwest regional director and son of a former Yellowstone chief ranger. It said Sholly, who graduated from Montana’s Gardiner High School along Yellowstone’s northern border, would take the helm in August.
Recently retired Yellowstone historian Lee Whittlesey told me that no Yellowstone superintendent in modern times has been exiled the way Wenk is by Zinke and colleagues. Although senior executives are subject to transfer, a Yellowstone superintendent has never been forced out. “It’s never happened the way this is going down,” Whittlesey said.
Wenk, who planned to retire next March, had his options spelled out in a stark memo issued by controversial acting director of the Park Service, P. Daniel Smith, who has been a subject in two Inspector General investigations. The latest involves Smith, in January of this year, being observed telling a joke as he strolled through the Interior building in Washington, D.C., grabbing his crotch and then proceeding to pantomime himself urinating on the wall.
Wenk was informed by Smith that he had 60 days to report to Washington, to become the Park Service’s Capitol region director, a position widely considered a demotion.
In the checklist memo given to Wenk, the fourth option reads, “I decline the reassignment. I understand that I will be subject to adverse action procedures.”
Former Yellowstone Superintendent Mike Finley, now chair of the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission, spent 32 years with the Park Service, becoming one of the most respected leaders in the history of the agency. He was asked by former President Barack Obama to be the national Park Service director during his administration, but Finley declined the president’s offer.
During our chat, Finley made one thing clear: Those who love Yellowstone should not hold Sholly responsible for what happened to Wenk. “Cam has the right stuff,” he said.
Wenk, for his part in doing the dignified thing, immediately and voluntarily issued a statement of congratulations, but it had to first be cleared by Interior officials in Washington.
Wenk is 66, his accolades and list of career accomplishments are stellar, and if he were a corporate executive he’d be treated as a superstar.
Finley noted there’s no other explanation for his mistreatment other than him being punished—for being vocal in his critical views of slaughtering Yellowstone bison; expressing concern about transboundary park grizzlies getting shot in state-sponsored trophy hunts; and even pondering limits to how many visitors the park can hold.
“[Zinke and his political appointees] 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.”
Zinke, he said, often boasts about honor and glory due to his past as a Navy SEAL. “[He] 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 explained. “Over a century, we tried to recruit some of the best-educated, most highly motivated and thoughtful employees to enter our ranks. Dan Wenk was one of them, and he delivered.”
After a pause, Finley 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.”
Finley then emphasized one more thing. “If Zinke had any decency, he would have the courage to pick up the phone and give Wenk a call, thanking him for his service to country. That’s what noble soldiers do. That’s what an Interior secretary worthy of our respect would do. They always choose doing the honorable thing over the reprehensible.”
Todd Wilkinson is founder of Bozeman-based Mountain Journal (mountainjournal.org) and a correspondent for National Geographic. He also is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Jackson Hole grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at mangelsen.com/grizzly.