The New West: Yellowstone Defender

By on July 25, 2018

Cameron Sholly commits to protecting America’s first national park

Superintendent David Wenk’s successor Cameron Sholly says he is not a ‘yes man.’

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Never in its storied 146-year-old history has Yellowstone seen a changing of the guard like this one.

Earlier this year, Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk, a 43-year veteran, and his successor, Cameron Sholly, selected by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and his political appointees, were put on a collision course.

Wenk was forced to take a transfer with just months remaining in his career, spurring an official congressional inquiry. Sholly said he plans to arrive in Yellowstone in October. Meanwhile, Wenk will step down from America’s oldest national park in September.

Despite the drama, Wenk and Sholly remain friends and professionals respectful of one another. Last week, Sholly told me his thoughts about the controversy.

It’s what he said about his mission to the National Park Service, one which transcends politics, that should hearten those concerned about the future of Yellowstone.

I asked Sholly about fears that Zinke might be aspiring to put a compliant “yes person” in charge of Yellowstone who would not raise concerns about transboundary grizzly bears and bison, issues of exploding visitor use in the front country, and how to address the park’s $800 million deferred maintenance tab without markedly expanding the human footprint.

“First, I think you’d be hard pressed to find someone I’ve worked with that would call me a ‘yes person,’ at least as it relates to the context of your question,” Sholly said.

“Second,” he added, “we execute actions for the people we work for, be it this administration or others. All of us have an obligation to uphold the law and mission of the National Park Service. That said, any notion that the leadership of any Department can’t direct legal actions, have conversations or differences in opinion about how we manage and operate, evaluate or change policies and priorities, is nonsensical.”

For some, that response might be worrisome, but to make himself clear, Sholly noted: “When it comes to substantive actions driven by any Department [of Interior], there is a line. On the wrong side of the line is illegality, ethical violations, and actions or decisions that compromise the integrity of the NPS mission.”

During our discussion, Sholly didn’t sugar coat anything, dishing out praise and acknowledging problems in the Park Service. “We have positive successes every day all over this agency. We have strong esprit de corps and morale in many areas of the organization. We also have the opposite, and have a lot of work to do, whether that be in continuing to build positive morale, or continued efforts to prevent and eliminate sexual harassment and hostile work environments. These are things that have plagued our agency for years and require substantial continued focus and attention in the future.”

He also addressed what happened to Wenk.

“As far as the question about him being forcibly reassigned, he has made his points fairly clearly,” he said. Sholly also met questions head-on about bison and his experience dealing with Chronic Wasting Disease in other national parks.

On stewardship priorities, he referenced one of Yellowstone’s most prominent human-constructed landmarks. “The Roosevelt Arch at the northern entrance has ‘For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People’ inscribed. People read that and think it’s about the people. It is and it isn’t.  It’s not that simple,” he said.

Sholly said the key word in that sentence, “for,” signifies the park. Without the park, people lose something that holds deep meaning in their lives. “So irrespective of how you look at it, when there is a conflict between the park and the people, our priority has to be making decisions that serve in the best long-term interests of the park resources and values. If we don’t get that right, the rest doesn’t matter.”

Science is an invaluable asset but science doesn’t deliver all the answers, Sholly said. For a Yellowstone superintendent, equally important are humility standing before nature and checking one’s ego at the door.

“The bottom line is you can’t know everything about everything, so don’t even pretend. People will see right through you.”

Instead, we have to ask ourselves what we don’t know, and how, who, and when to ask for help. “Can you make and defend decisions, especially when they’re not popular?” he asked. “At the end of the day, if you think it’s all about you, get a different job.”

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Planet Jackson Hole


About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal (which just published a long piece on climate change in Greater Yellowstone), is also author of Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at mangelsen.com/grizzly.

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