Yellowstone Forever

May 19, 2011

Getting to Know Superintendent Dan Wenk

An Exclusive Interview with Yellowstone's New Leader

Yellowstone Superintendent Dan WenkThe Yellowstone Park Foundation is pleased to welcome Dan Wenk, who assumed his duties as Yellowstone’s new superintendent in February.  He now manages more than 2.2 million acres, a staff of 800 and has an annual base budget of more than $36 million -- the largest operating budget of any national park in the National Park Service.  We recently sat down with him to talk about his career in the national parks, and about what he envisions for Yellowstone’s future.

Dan’s 35-year career in the National Park Service (NPS) is impressive.  He has worked at several parks --including Yellowstone from 1979 to 1984 -- with diverse responsibilities that will offer him useful perspective when it comes to tackling Yellowstone’s tougher issues.  Most recently, he served as Deputy Director of Operations for NPS in Washington D.C.  See complete bio>>

Yellowstone Park Foundation: How did you get your start with the NPS?

Dan Wenk: “I don’t recall ever visiting a national park as a child. When I was a Michigan State student in 1973, majoring in landscape architecture, I wanted to go out west for the summer, and saw a posting for a ‘Student Assistant Landscape Architect.’ The job was with the NPS Design Office located in Denver, so I got to work in several western parks that summer. This is the experience that first introduced me to national parks.”

YPF: How did you know you wanted a career in the national parks?

DW: “I wanted to be the best landscape architect I could be, and felt like I needed to get some more diverse experience, so for a while I tested my wings in the private sector.  But I was soon drawn back to the parks. I loved the mission of the NPS, and the people, and loved what the parks stood for.

“It was during my first job in Yellowstone that I realized my desire to transition from landscape architect to a broader, management position. I wanted to have a greater impact, and not be limited to designing other people’s dreams.  I wanted to expand my focus to preservation of resources to ensure that the visitor use was integrated into the park landscape.  My position description at Yellowstone actually said I was the ‘conscience of the park.’”

Dan Wenk
YPF: What exactly does that mean – “the conscience of the park?”

DW: “At one point I was working at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan.  I was asked to redesign a walking trail that would continue to take visitors behind the wall of water at the beautiful, 50-foot Munising Falls.  I felt like it just wasn’t right. I was concerned that this jeopardized the natural landscape, eroding the area around the falls and increasing risk of vandalism, and I voiced my concerns all the way to the superintendent.  Eventually, it was decided that the trail would be built with platforms that allowed great views of the falls, but with no trail behind it. This experience helped solidify the feeling that I wanted to be part of making decisions, not just implementing them.”

YPF: What do you hope to accomplish in your first year as Yellowstone’s superintendent?

DW: “I would like to help bring resolution to the bison management and winter use issues –  sustainable solutions that mean we won’t need to keep addressing the same problems over and over again.  The sustainable solution will include actions outside of Yellowstone and the Gardiner Basin. For instance I hope to work with Native American communities and other stakeholders to reestablish bison herds throughout the West.”

YPF: What challenges and opportunities do you envision for Yellowstone in the next five years?

DW: “The issue of [non-native] lake trout needs to be addressed over the long-term. It will take a sustained effort to solve this problem, and the solutions can’t be dependent on fluctuations in the annual budget. Also, Yellowstone’s visitation has been growing steadily in recent years. We need to make sure we are prepared to effectively balance a high-quality visitor experience with resource protection.  The effects of climate change need to be carefully monitored and adaptive management changes may have to be implemented.”

YPF: What about the next 10-20 years?

DW: “Yellowstone is looked to by leaders of protected areas around the world to see how we deal with issues. We have a responsibility to set the standard for stewardship.  For instance, when I started at NPS over 30 years ago, we rarely thought about issues outside park boundaries. Now we see boundaries as imaginary, and realize how the parks affect natural and community resources in the surrounding area. Yellowstone is -- and will remain -- at the forefront of addressing these issues.”

YPF: How is Yellowstone different from other parks where you have worked?

“Its sheer complexity: the size and abundance of resources, diverse wildlife, uniqueness of the geothermal features, and the effect of the park on surrounding areas. It is important to be sensitive to the fact that Yellowstone is an economic engine for three states -- Montana, Wyoming and Idaho – and is the heart of the largest intact ecosystem in the lower 48 states. One always needs to consider the unintended consequences along with the intended ones. You just can’t make short-term decisions in Yellowstone National Park.”

Dan Wenk
YPF: Based on talking to visitors over the many years you’ve been with NPS, what role do you think national parks play in peoples’ lives?

DW: “The public in general has a great deal of comfort in knowing that national parks exist, from the National Mall in Washington, DC, to parks like Yellowstone, to historic sites.  But for each individual, it really speaks to their values; they take away from their park experience what they bring to it.  If they come to hike, fish, bike, see wildlife, or just gaze at snow-capped mountains, their life is enriched to some degree.”

YPF: When you were Superintendent at Mount Rushmore, your nonprofit fundraising partner raised $60 million for preservation and improvements.
Has working with partner groups changed your thinking on any park issues?

DW: “Society has made a statement that there are places worth preserving in their natural or original state. This outpouring of support demonstrates the extraordinary commitment that people have to the parks – not just in dollars but in willingness to give of their time, their wisdom. The government can’t do everything. People who care about parks advocate for making the parks stronger and helping NPS achieve its mission.”

YPF: Do you have any favorite spots to visit in Yellowstone?

“When I worked in Yellowstone the first time [1979-1985], I loved to watch Echinus Geyser in Norris.  You could stand on the boardwalk and have a very close-up view of it.  The pool would fill up slowly, then the geyser would erupt, and then the pool drained slowly and the process would start over again. There was always something happening. I haven’t been there since I arrived this winter, but I have heard it has changed. That’s one of the many things that are so amazing about Yellowstone. The thermal features do evolve over time. When you visit, it’s never the exact same park twice.”

YPF: What has been the biggest adjustment for you and your wife, Barbara, in moving to Yellowstone?

DW: “At many other NPS posts, I was middle management. Now I am the boss, so wherever I go, there is no anonymity, so that involves a little bit of an adjustment. But this is our home now, and we fully intend to be active members of the Yellowstone regional community.

“Also, an owl is nesting in the tree outside our house. It's much nicer to listen to the owl at night than sirens.”

All photographs courtesy of NPS


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