As the National Park Service Turns 100, Superintendent Dan Wenk Fights for America’s Crown Jewel
BY TODD WILKINSON
PHOTOS COURTESY OF WES OVERVOLD, NPS
VIDEO BY WES OVERVOLD & JOSEPH T. O’CONNOR
Most landscape architects in America do not become civil servants. Of those who do, few ever dwell in a fishbowl where their every move is subjected to intense public scrutiny. In the 144-year history of Yellowstone National Park, only one superintendent, Dan Wenk, began his career musing on how the footprint of humanity might better intersect with wild places.
Forty years ago, Wenk, a southern Michiganer, never imagined spending his entire adult life in the employ of the National Park Service, let alone rising to guard its most iconic crown jewel.
On this day, Wenk is wearing his agency-issue gray and green uniform inspired long ago by the frontier attire of the U.S. Cavalry. Although his appearance is throwback, the skillset he musters is equal parts tree hugger, motivational speaker, 21st century corporate executive (overseeing a staff of 800 and a budget of $70 million) and, by the nature of 2.2 million acres of terrain he safeguards, a field marshal.
Looking after the well-being of America’s first national park isn’t a popularity contest. In fact, those serving in Wenk’s position before him have likened the concept of doing what’s right by Yellowstone to an ongoing exercise in masochism.
“He is not a run-of-the-mill advocate. He’s been entrusted by the American people to look after the single most significant piece of real estate in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.”
This morning, Wenk’s staff is contemplating the potential impacts of two hardrock mines proposed just north of Yellowstone, one of them near the park border along an important wildlife migration route. They are also preparing for a record onslaught driven by the centennial of the National Park Service giving parks unprecedented visibility as destinations. This summer, Yellowstone is bracing for record numbers of highway-clogging visits, far above the unprecedented 4.1 million mark set in 2015. There’s also an estimated $633 million deferred building-maintenance tab and 380 miles of park roadway built originally over the top of rutted stagecoach trails.
His role in the hot seat takes many forms. Last summer, Wenk received hate mail and death threats for euthanizing a mother grizzly bear after the bruin killed and partially ate a hiker near the western shore of Yellowstone Lake. The barrage of condemnation got more intense after Wenk sent the sow’s orphaned cubs to the Toledo Zoo in Ohio. The episode, which played out very publicly in August 2015, even elicited a personal phone call from Dr. Jane Goodall—a huge fan of Greater Yellowstone grizzlies—who pleaded unsuccessfully with the superintendent not to impose a death sentence on the mama bear.
A few months later, Wenk endured another backlash that erupted when hundreds of Yellowstone bison naturally migrated over the northern park border into Montana and were herded by Yellowstone rangers into corrals then sent to slaughter. Needlessly, bison advocates said. Even Wenk’s colleagues were disgusted. More than 9,000 migratory park bison have been shot or destroyed since the mid 1980s as a result of Montana’s intolerance based upon dubious evidence that bison represent eminent threats capable of passing along a disease, brucellosis, to private cattle herds. There’s never been a documented case of wild Yellowstone bison transmitting the disease.
On top of that, Wenk has received complaints from tourism officials in West Yellowstone, Montana, for limiting the number of snowmobiles allowed to enter the park; he was condemned by a group of packrafters from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, after he refused to overturn a longtime ban on boating park riverways.
He’s reviled in Gardiner, Montana, by hunting outfitters and guides for allegedly letting park wolves kill too many elk. And he’s been criticized by some for gill-netting millions of exotic lake trout in Yellowstone Lake in order to save the last great stronghold of native Yellowstone cutthroat trout.
Nearly everything Wenk does makes him a lightning rod. Here, he says something that is perhaps surprising: He doesn’t blame his critics. He’s grateful Americans feel so passionately about the future of Yellowstone because if there’s anything that will lead to its destruction, he notes, it’s apathy.
Yes, Wenk says, Yellowstone issues are contentious. Indeed, the words chiseled into the Roosevelt Arch state, “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” but Yellowstone, he adds, doesn’t exist to be a wild amusement park. “The mission of the National Park Service, as spelled out by its enabling Organic Act in 1916, very explicitly says we are tasked with preserving, unimpaired, the natural and cultural resources for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations,” he says. “The key word is unimpaired. Our thinking must be long term, not on which way the wind of public opinion is blowing in a given moment.”
“Dan is courageous, creative and unafraid to advocate strenuously for the health and well-being of the park and the ecosystem.” – Caroline Byrd, executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition
Environmental professor Susan G. Clark of Yale University has been thinking about Yellowstone for half a century and bringing out students to let them experience the park as a living, breathing laboratory of natural processes and human ideas about nature.
Clark has been critical of some park managers over the years but Wenk has earned her admiration. “He is not a run-of-the-mill advocate. He’s been entrusted by the American people to look after the single most significant piece of real estate in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. And the ecosystem is recognized for having huge national and international significance for the things still found inside it,” Clark says. “Wenk takes his role very seriously. I am much more appreciative of the complexity of issues he faces.”
In a recent National Geographic story, Bozeman, Montana, writer David Quammen puts Wenk in the middle of a quest having to wade through amorphous and artificially constructed concepts. “I call it ‘the paradox of the cultivated wild,’” Quammen told an interviewer from National Public Radio in April. “It’s paradoxical because we’re…saying, ‘We want this place to continue to be wild, but in order for it to seem wild, to appear wild, to give people the experience of what the wild in the Northern Rockies is, we’ve got to do some tinkering, we’ve got to do some management. We have to have some rules and some boundaries.’”
For Wenk, it’s two things at once: drawing boundaries to repel perceived detrimental impacts ranging from industrial resource extraction just beyond Yellowstone to such insidious things as climate change and encroachment by invasive aquatic organisms and plant species that diminishes native forage available to ungulates; it’s also looking beyond the idea of Yellowstone being an oversized artificial box.
“Dan is courageous, creative and unafraid to advocate strenuously for the health and well-being of the park and the ecosystem,” says Caroline Byrd, executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. “He understands how the Park Service works at all levels, top to bottom.”
As strange as it sounds, Yellowstone is measurably “wilder” today than it was when the Park Service was created a century ago. It was the first national park in the Lower 48—with the restoration of wolves in the mid-1990s—to regain all its original major species that were there prior to the arrival of Europeans in North America. Grizzly numbers have rebounded and now rising bison numbers are even outcompeting elk on the park’s Northern Range. The relationship between predators and prey is playing out dynamically and people are coming to see it.
Citing recent statistics, Wenk says the value of the growing nature-tourism economy in Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks alone is worth more than $1 billion annually.
“… Places like Yellowstone can survive because they’re becoming more important to segments of our population … Our society will not let them go.”
The first superintendent post Wenk held, after serving in two other executive-level positions, was at South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore National Memorial, the epitome of a human-created landmark and the opposite of Yellowstone. They are in stark contrast but they are both units of the Park Service. Like Yellowstone, Rushmore provokes a conversation that is open ended.
“I came to believe that people took away from Mount Rushmore something of what they brought with them. If they were veterans of World War II and were highly patriotic, they left with a heightened sense of patriotism,” Wenk says. “If they were Native Americans with a feeling of oppression, they came away still thinking of it as a travesty on native sacred lands. But with Yellowstone, I think it has the power to transform, to alter your notion of what nature is.”
Deconstructing some of the buildings and roads he helped design as a young 20-something landscape architect brought to Yellowstone by then-superintendent John Townsley in the early 1980s, Wenk says less human presence means more wildness. “Today we’re looking at how we can contract the development footprint and keep it as minimal as possible,” Wenk says. “We will never expand facilities to meet the full demands
of visitor needs. That’s the role of gateway communities. We see the error of our earlier ways. The best way we can safeguard this place is to let natural processes occur, let them expand to refill their original function.”
The greatest threat going forward, Wenk says, is the irony of Yellowstone being so rare in a human-altered world that the region is being swarmed by people drawn to its uncommon beauty. In simple terms, he worries about it being loved to death.
“The least studied mammal in Yellowstone is the human,” Wenk is fond of saying. “We have to know more about [what] rising numbers of people are doing to impact the resources of the park and the visitor experience.”
For the first time in its history, Yellowstone now has a full-time social scientist on staff, and the information gathered will help inform how the park considers potential limits on numbers of people, including whether a public transportation system is feasible. A quarter century ago, U.S. Senator Malcolm Wallop asked the Park Service to study the potential of having monorails built in Yellowstone but it was dismissed by the agency as too expensive.
“I don’t think most people would mind having a limit set on how they can visit Yellowstone during peak season. The issue is local and regional businesses and economies,” Wenk says.
While there is no hard data yet, some gatekeepers in Yellowstone say it appears that in recent years the number of Chinese visitors entering the park has exceeded all non-white Americans. If Hispanic, African-American, Asian-American, and Native-American citizens aren’t coming to Yellowstone, that’s problematic. “Members of Congress, which in the decades ahead will be comprised of increasing ethnic diversity, will only support things that are important to their constituents,” Wenk says. “Park visitation needs to reflect the changing face of America.”
The flood of Chinese visitors has come replete with its own set of challenges, namely that some are not accustomed to keeping distance from wildlife, staying on the boardwalks in geothermal areas or being courteous at scenic overlooks. In early 2016, Wenk sent letters to 85 bus tour companies catering to non-American tourists warning them to promote responsible behavior around sensitive park resources.
Wenk references the controversy over packrafting and kayaking in which a small group of boaters got Wyoming Congress woman Cynthia Lummis to introduce a bill that would force Yellowstone to open waters to boating. “They want it because it’s forbidden fruit,” Wenk says. “We don’t know the impacts and they don’t care about the consequences.”
He cites copious reasons why it’s a bad idea, including the lessons from other uses that grew into huge problems once they gained a foothold. “Winter use started with one or two snowmobiles and we ended up with 2,000 a day, and our own park personnel having to wear gas masks at the entrance stations because of the pollution,” he says. “The unintended consequences of an action like this we just can’t risk.”
Wenk says public pressure makes a difference in advocating for resources and he welcomes it. As a result of intense scrutiny from citizens, Yellowstone and the state of Montana are in the midst of rewriting a 16-year-old bison management plan that is expected to result in buffalo given more latitude to roam outside the park.
A record 4.1 million people visited Yellowstone National Park in 2015. Park visits in 2016, the centennial of the Park Services, could far surpass that number.
Wenk is moved whenever he walks through crowds of tourists anonymously in his civilian clothes and hears children tell their parents that hearing a wolf howl or watching a bear tromp through a valley was the most fun they’ve had in their life.
In recent years, he has presided as chairman of the Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee, the interagency body entrusted to look at land management issues across invisible human-drawn boundaries.
For example, he has tried to press the Forest Service to welcome park bison and to have the Fish and Wildlife Service become better advocates for protecting transboundary grizzly bears, and to embrace habitat protection on behalf of migratory big game herds.
In many instances, he has run into a brick wall. Many agencies are still stuck in their individual silos, still reticent to embrace ecosystem management as the vision was initially presented decades ago. Although many have said Wenk would be a leading candidate for National Park Service director, he says Yellowstone will be his final tour of duty.
“I’m not going away anytime soon but I intend to retire from here. For me, having the opportunity to make some kind of modest contribution to its legacy is all I could hope for. And it means I’ll be going out on top.”
He hopes the May 2016 edition of National Geographic, which is devoted entirely to Yellowstone and is expected to reach upwards of 10 million readers, will help move the dialogue to a higher level because heeding the big picture is the only way the wild values of Greater Yellowstone will endure.
“I think Yellowstone and places like Yellowstone can survive because they’re becoming more important to segments of our population,”Wenksays. “Our society will not let them go. The challenge [is] really one that should be directed to people in the region making decisions on a daily basis that all add up—county commissioners and city councils and other kinds of elected officials. And people willing to accept limits and self-restraint in order to hold onto something greater.”
Yale professor Susan Clark adds her own caveat: “How will Greater Yellowstone be saved? The short answer is we need a lot more Dan Wenks.”
Todd Wilkinson has been writing about Yellowstone for 30 years, and other assignments that have taken him around the world. His work has appeared in National Geographic, the Washington Post and dozens of other publications. His latest book, “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” (mangelsen.com/grizzly), features images by Thomas D. Mangelsen, who was profiled in the winter 2016 edition of Mountain Outlaw. Wilkinson lives in Bozeman, Montana.