Facing reassignment under Trump, top Yellowstone official instead retires
A highly respected National Park Service executive who engineered the reopening of the Statue of Liberty after the 2001 terrorist attacks and settled the contentious issue of snowmobile use in Yellowstone National Park announced his retirement Friday, June 1, as Interior Department officials consider a proposal to reassign him to Washington.
Daniel Wenk, who as Yellowstone superintendent holds one of the agency's most coveted jobs, submitted a request to retire March 30 -- a date that would allow him far more time at his Mammoth, Wyoming-based post than the 60 days he would have to vacate his office after a reassignment. "It has been an honor and a privilege working for the National Park Service for the last almost 43 years," Wenk wrote in a letter, an excerpt of which was provided to The Washington Post.
He asked to delay his departure for several reasons, including sealing agreements with the state of Montana and a Native American tribe to move bison from Yellowstone to Fort Peck, 400 miles away.
Wenk would not comment on why Interior identified him for a transfer. But those close to him called the move "punitive" and "political" by an administration that demands loyalty over issues of deep concern to Wenk, such as wilderness preservation and conservation.
The department declined Thursday to comment about Wenk, instead issuing a general statement about President Donald Trump's executive order to reorganize the federal government. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke "has been absolutely out front on that issue," the statement by spokeswoman Heather Swift said.
Specific rules govern senior executive service reassignments, and Interior broke several in a flurry of transfers last year. Its Office of Inspector General subsequently weighed in, saying no transfers are allowed until about four months after the Senate confirms a presidential nominee as secretary. The 35 executives involved received notice within 106 days after Zinke's confirmation on March 1, 2017.
Investigators in the inspector general's office found little rhyme or reason to Interior's reassignments. Meetings were held, but there were no "meeting minutes, notes, voting or decision records, or documentation for these meetings or for any activities or discussions related to reassignments, other than photographs of poster boards," a report said.
Twenty-seven of the senior executives who got notices last year were reassigned. Three others resigned before the transfers took effect. Reassignment orders were rescinded for another three, and two stayed in their positions pending retirement, the report said.
In its statement Thursday, Interior noted that senior executives are the highest-paid employees in the federal government and signed up "knowing that they could be called upon to work in different positions at any time." Zinke has said that shifting senior executives to different regional offices is a way to reinvigorate the department's decision-making.
But a chorus of career staffers and conservation groups have said that such moves can be retaliation against employees who have spoken out against administration policies. The moves have drawn particular suspicion given Zinke's claim last year that a third of his employees were not "loyal to the flag."
"A lot of their desire is not about competence; it's about loyalty," former Park Service director Jonathan Jarvis said. "They're looking for loyalty, whatever that means, in terms of delivering on an agenda. When you move to transfer someone like Dan, who has a lot of integrity, you send a message to the rest of the field that this is what they expect: loyalty. It's that simple, and sad."
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, a Republican, praised Wenk on Thursday evening: "We've had agreements and disagreements, and I have great respect for him. He's worked through some very difficult issues. I think he's done a very good job." Mead also sympathized with Wenk, adding, "If I was superintendent of Yellowstone, and my career option was to go back to Washington, D.C., it's not much of a promotion, thank you. But I'm speaking for myself."
National Parks Conservation Association President and chief executive Theresa Pierno called Wenk "a strong leader with decades of knowledge and passion for parks. Whether you agree with Dan or not on an issue, you know where he stands, and he stands for the parks. To lose Dan Wenk would be a great loss to the national park system."
Wenk had made no secret of his plan to eventually retire from leading the United States' first national park, where he oversees 3 million visitors yearly. But he acknowledged in his announcement that "while my plans to retire are not a surprise to you, the timing and announcement of this decision may be."
He continued, "The recent national and local attention to proposed reassignment of senior executives in the National Park Service has created great uncertainty with federal and state agencies, local communities and partner organizations that Yellowstone relies on to be successful."
Wenk, 66, wanted to remain at Yellowstone for 10 more months to finish several projects. But moving bison from Yellowstone to some of their traditional range on Native American tribal lands - part of an effort to conserve and protect the animals - could be one of the reasons that put him at odds with the Trump administration.
Wenk also opposes efforts to remove grizzly bears and gray wolves from the endangered species list, as Interior wants to do. And under Zinke, the department is proposing to eliminate rules that protect adult wolves, bears and their cubs from being shot while in their dens by hunters on federal land in Alaska.
The Michigan native, who entered the Park Service as a landscape architect in 1975, is described as an executive loyal to the agency's mission. Jarvis, whom Wenk served as a deputy, said former interior secretary Ken Salazar "coined the term that Dan was the mailman because Dan always delivered."
When given a task, Jarvis said, Wenk "had the capacity, intelligence and drive to deliver on it." He recalled how the crown of the Statue of Liberty was reopened by the Obama administration after being closed for years. Salazar ordered Jarvis to give him a date for that, and Jarvis turned to his deputy.
"Dan said it could be reopened by Labor Day," Jarvis said; Salazar countered with the Fourth of July. "I turned to Dan and said, 'Let's deliver.' " And in 2011, Wenk did.
Other strengths showed six years ago, when Wenk was assigned to Yellowstone and threw himself in the conflict over snowmobile access to the park. "Dan has an engineering mind. He analyzes in detail," Jarvis said. In the end, Wenk found a way to placate opposition to the vehicles by designating times when they were allowed and implementing a rule that gave preference to snowmobiles designed to emit less noise.
"The snowmobile issue was a big deal," said Mead, whose state covers 90 percent of Yellowstone. "Certainly not what everybody wants, but to get that behind him was good."
Story by Darryl Fears. Fears is a reporter on the national staff who covers the Interior Department, issues affecting wildlife and the Chesapeake Bay watershed.