JACKSON — Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk has lost a skirmish with the Trump administration in which he sought to ensure an “orderly transition” with 10 more months’ service in Yellowstone. He must decide by Aug. 2 to accept reassignment to Washington D.C., retire, or be subject to firing.
Wenk received a letter and email Monday saying he was being reassigned to the National Capital Regional Office (see documents below.) He had fought the involuntary transfer for two months, even resigning from the Park Service, effective May 30, 2019, to try to buy time to complete outstanding projects, he said in an interview with WyoFile.
But neither his retirement, which was announced last week, nor difficult negotiations in the preceding two months staved off the 43-year Park Service veteran’s forced removal from the helm of the world’s first national park, he said. He has been Yellowstone superintendent since 2011.
“My assumption was that by announcing my retirement … they would allow me to finish my career in Yellowstone National Park,” Wenk said. But P. Daniel Smith, now director of the National Park Service, and Susan Combs, Department of Interior’s acting assistant director for fish, wildlife and parks, would not heed his pleas to finish initiatives and pave the way for a transition, he said. “I do not understand why it is being done,” Wenk said.
WyoFile did not immediately receive a response to an email to the Department of Interior seeking comment.
The removal was made without serious consultation, explanation, or an opportunity to present his case to decision makers, Wenk said. In 43 years of service with the federal agency, the method of transfer is something “I’ve never seen before,” Wenk said.
“I’m incredibly disappointed they can’t give me 6 more months,” Wenk said. “It’s important to Yellowstone, important to the National Park Service, important to the Department of the Interior.”
Wenk was given 60 days from June 4 to decide whether to accept the transfer immediately, accept it in 60 days, decline the transfer and retire, or decline the transfer and “be subject to removal under adverse action procedures,” documents show.
Park Service director Smith told the superintendent in a telephone conversation June 1 he hoped to have Wenk’s replacement in place in August, Wenk said.
Because of the potential for a new superintendent to arrive before Wenk chooses one of his four options, Wenk said he asked Smith what would happen if he was still in Yellowstone when the new superintendent arrived.
“He told me you just won’t be the superintendent any longer,” Wenk said.
A bureaucratic chess match and a broken promise
Wenk’s troubles began in April when he was told of the proposal to move him to Washington, D.C. There was “no explanation,” Wenk said. “There was no consultation. I was told my talents were needed there.”
He gave the following account of what transpired after learning April 19 of the pending move. On April 25, Wenk said he told his superiors they were “ill-advised to move me.”
The next day he received a call from Smith saying the forced transfer was on, regardless. Wenk said he told Smith the transfer was unacceptable, and that he was thinking of retiring in any case.
The Washington Post reported April 27 about the proposed transfer of Wenk and other senior executive service officials in a story headlined “Proposed shake-up at National Park Service could make senior leaders hit the road.”
Publication of the transfer news would undermine his initiatives unless the Park Service allowed him to serve in Yellowstone until 2019, he said. “I had become a lame duck the minute that Washington Post article appeared,” Wenk said.
Wenk outlined his arguments for staying in Yellowstone to Smith and received an assurance Smith would take his case to the Department of Interior’s Executive Review Board, which considers the transfers of the senior executives.
“We had what I thought was a plan,” Wenk said. “First quarter ‘19 [for retirement] as a logical thing that would meet the needs of the Park Service.”
On May 19, Wenk said he received a call from Combs, who was exercising the authority for the Department of the Interior’s assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks. He asked if she was taking his case to stay in Yellowstone through 2019 to the review board. She responded that she had looked at his file and resume and had no information regarding that request.
Combs told Wenk she “looked forward to working with me at the capital region,” he said. “That’s when I made my decision to retire.”
Wenk had been pondering retirement for more than a year. During his 2017 year-end job evaluation he told his Denver boss, Intermountain Regional Director Sue Masica, he planned to leave the National Park Service at the end of 2018 or in the first quarter of 2019.
“I would probably be retired before today,” were it not for several critical initiatives he seeks to complete, Wenk said in an interview. Those included transferring some Yellowstone bison to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana, working on several concessions contracts, and addressing the swelling masses of visitors.
As Wenk went public, Interior acted
On May 31 Wenk wrote regional director Masica saying he was going to resign, effective March 30, 2019. “While I am officially letting you know about my retirement, I am doing so, knowing that I have 9 months to complete or nearly complete a number of important projects that I have been working on for years,” the emailed letter, obtained by WyoFile, states.
“By March 30, 2019 the park will reach significant milestones or complete many of the projects,” on Wenk’s list, the letter states. The 2019 date also would allow him to honor a commitment he’d made upon the merger of the Yellowstone Park Foundation and Yellowstone Association not to retire for two years. Further, he hoped to launch a $150 million fundraising campaign for the 150th anniversary in 2022 of Yellowstone’s establishment.
But the proposed reassignment of senior park service personnel “has created great uncertainty with federal and state agencies, local communities and partner organizations that Yellowstone relies on to be successful,” Wenk wrote Masica. “It is important that I announce my retirement and end the speculation about my future so that the National Park Service can plan for an orderly transition.”
After writing Masica, Wenk on June 1 announced his 2019 retirement to the press. At the same time, the executive review board met to determine the request by Smith and Combs to move Wenk to Washington, D.C.
But the consideration was made without an opportunity for Wenk to pitch his request to stay in the park until 2019, he said. “I was never able to have that,” he said of the opportunity to make his case.
Smith and Combs outlined reasons for the involuntary transfer. “The reassignment is an opportunity for the NPS to benefit from Mr. Wenk’s experience and qualifications in strategic planning and overall leadership to focus on issues regarding urban park sites; cultural and natural resources and preservation management; and to work with complex partners, NPS Friends groups and members of Congress, mayors, governors, and other municipal authorities,” a memo to the review board from the two states.
The transfer was signed June 4. In approving the reassignment, Executive Review Board Chairman David Bernhardt wrote that the department had followed “best practices” in considering Combs’ presentation regarding the transfer of Wenk and three others.
The department’s plan to shuffle top leaders “seeks to strike a balance between the important values of leadership continuity and achieving fresh perspectives, while enabling the reassignment of senior executives to best accomplish the agency’s mission,” the approval memo states.
“…[S]enior executives may have perceptions of the reasons for reassignment decisions and surprisingly those perceptions may not align with the actual written material provided to the employee or the ERB,” the approval memo states.
Bernhardt’s approval memo says Smith and Combs’ transfer request was justified. “…[T]hese approvals were obtained on their merits,” Bernhardt’s memo says.
Wenk had tussled recently with other federal officials regarding the removal of federal Endangered Species Act protections for the Yellowstone area grizzly bear.
Wenk had hoped to complete the transfer of Yellowstone bison, quarantined to screen out those infected by brucellosis, to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana. The transfer would reduce a park boundary bison shoot that Wenk said in 2016 “would make most of you sick to your stomach.”
The bison plan requires delicate negotiations with the federal Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. “They needed to know I was the person they were negotiating with,” Wenk said.
Wenk also sought to complete negotiations with the park’s major concessionaire, Xanterra, and others, that would see the private company upgrade facilities and make other improvements. He also wanted to “institutionalize” the park’s visitor management program — an effort to get a handle on a practically unmanageable surge in traffic — “to protect the park.” Citing a 7 percent increase in May visitation compared to last year, “we’re off to a record-breaking start,” he said.
Email letter of resignation
Request to reassign Wenk
REASSIGN to RD NCR 6 4 18 Approval Wenk (1) (PDF)
Reassignment of Wenk
APPROVAL of REQUESTED REASSIGNMTS in NPS SES 6 4 18 (PDF)
Memo to Wenk saying he was reassigned
GEOGRAPHIC REASSIGNMT MEMOS 6 4 18 (PDF)