Reassignment and Forcible Resignation: What Superintendent Dan Wenk’s Departure Suggests About Environmental Human Rights in the United States Today

Scientists estimate that pollution causes over two million deaths and billions of disease cases each year. Weather pattern alteration, new disease emergence, and agricultural challenges as a result of climate change cause almost 150,000 deaths each year. Increasing use of pesticides and other toxins poison water and air, render areas too dangerous for human habitats, and kill almost half a million people annually. These facts all illustrate, quite alarmingly, the relationship between environmental health and survival of human life. The truth is that “environmental factors are a root cause of a significant burden of death, disease and disability,” amounting to “about 25% of death and disease globally.

As the global environment continues to undergo dramatic changes, it is essential to integrate environmental health and sustainability into the human rights lens. In June 1972, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment composed the Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. The Declaration states that, “man has the fundamental right to… adequate conditions of life… and he bears a solemn responsibility to protect and improve the environment for present and future generations” and “the natural resources of the earth… must be safeguarded for the benefit of present and future generations through careful planning or management.” This document, as well as others in the past few decades, have cemented the notion that people have the right to a safe, healthy, and prosperous environment.

The United States, in particular, has historically had a tumultuous relationship with conservation and environmental sustainability. While Native Americans revered and spiritualized nature, white settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries insisted that wilderness and uncultivated land had no purpose. Until the late 1800s, many Europeans overused natural resources and destroyed the biotic and abiotic environment, attempting to “subdue the earth and exert dominion over it.” Finally, as natural resources dwindled and areas of untouched wilderness became scarce, the United States realized the need for protected lands. On March 1st, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act, establishing Yellowstone National Park “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” As the first natural environment protected by the government, Yellowstone National Park (YNP) has been a symbol of conservation, natural beauty, and environmental health since its establishment.

Currently, the National Park Service employs about 780 people in YNP, with the highest-ranking and most-coveted position being the park superintendent. Also known as the “keepers of national treasures” and “guardians of the outdoors,” national park superintendents oversee national parks, completing tasks such as hiring and managing staff, directing projects, and acting as a park’s principal representative. Most importantly, superintendents must prioritize the conservation of national parks for the benefit of both the planet and its citizens.

As the director of the first and oldest national park, the superintendent of Yellowstone National Park’s opinions and decisions can shape those of superintendents around the country. Yellowstone continues to be the first and most famous model of conservation, so other national parks look to it for decisions about conservation, population management, tourism, and other major issues. Because the superintendent of YNP has such far-reaching influence, it is crucial that they hold values of environmental preservation and health close.

Unfortunately, the superintendent’s position is vulnerable to political shifts. The National Park Service is housed under the Department of the Interior (DOI), an executive department responsible for the management of federal lands and resources. The DOI, headed by the Secretary of the Interior, regulates the National Park Service — which includes appointing and overseeing its directors. Events in the past few months involving the superintendent have been a reminder of the politicization of the role and the sickening fact that politics continue to violate quality of life and human rights efforts.

The current superintendent of Yellowstone, Daniel N. Wenk, has spent over four decades working for the National Park Service. He has held the position for seven years, overseeing and managing “more than 2.2 million acres, a staff of 800, and an annual budget of more than $60 million.” After turning down a transfer opportunity to Washington D.C. offered by Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, Wenk realized that this proposed reassignment was an attempt to remove him from his current position. Wenk announced on June 1st of this year that he planned to retire in March 2019— he created a firmer timeline for his retirement and started to search for a dependable replacement he could recommend to the DOI. He felt that he had reached a “gentleman’s agreement” with Secretary Zinke: he would retire earlier than he had originally planned, but Zinke would let him retire with dignity and honor instead of forcing him to transfer. On June 4th, less than a week after superintendent Wenk proposed an early retirement in 2019, the Department of the Interior informed him that he must take the reassignment or retire by this August. Angry that the implicit agreement had been violated and still opposing a transfer to D.C., Wenk is now being made to retire in less than a month.

Dan Wenk’s forced retirement showcases our current administration’s ignorance and disregard for a conservation-based approach to public land management. In truth, Wenk and his “modern enlightened conservation ethic” present an obstacle to Trump and other members of his administration, who have strong ties to oil and gas industries and have expressed their view of economic prosperity over environmental protection. Because of this perspective divide, many believe that the forced retirement was “a thinly-veiled attempt to undermine a number of agencies that have a mission of environmental protection at their core.” Some even argue that Zinke’s action was meant to “punish Wenk ostensibly because of his outspoken support for conservation.” Even Wenk himself speculated that the move was meant to discourage further pro-environment action, saying: “I feel this is a punitive action.”

One of the many issues that Zinke and Wenk have clashed over is wild bison management in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Wild bison are fertile and have high survival rates, so the population in and around Yellowstone National Park grows steadily. Although bison improve the park’s ecological diversity, Montana ranchers along the borders fear that migrating bison will spread diseases such as brucellosis to livestock, and compete for grazing area. In 2000, the state of Montana and the federal government agreed on a population goal of 3,000 — any bison over this number would be slaughtered. One of Wenk’s projects during his tenure has been a renegotiation of this plan, relocating the excess population of wild bison to the Fort Peck reservation instead of killing them. With the new plan between the state of Montana and the Fort Peck tribes, wild bison could continue to prosper in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and native tribal communities could live in a healthier and naturally rich environment. With Wenk’s departure, many people fear that the change in leadership may put a wrench in bison conservation.

Jonathan Jarvis, head of the National Park Service under President Obama, describes Wenk’s replacement, Cameron Sholly, as a good pick; however, Jarvis admits that the current administration will expect Sholly to be loyal and make decisions aligned with its interests to keep his position.  By removing Wenk, the Trump administration sends a troubling message to Sholly and all NPS leaders: if you do not agree with us, you will lose your position. Therefore, we can expect that even the strongest supporters of conservation may prioritize the administration’s anti-environmentalist views in self-defense, likely slowing or halting conservation efforts.

Additionally, by forcing the pro-conservation leader of the United States’ most influential national park to retire and thereby visibly placing the needs of industry over the needs of the environment, the government is depriving its citizens of their environmental human rights. As detailed in the Stockholm Declaration, we are entitled to a safe environment, and it is our duty to preserve and protect this environment for our well-being and for that of future generations. A healthy, functioning environment not only preserves human rights, but also preserves businesses and industries that must have a balanced environment to reap resources from. Superintendent Wenk’s departure could mean the end of the new bisonmanagement plan, which would leave Fort Peck tribes without robust natural resources and a secure environment. The upcoming superintendent, with pressure to follow the interests of an anti-conservation government, may make choices for the park that reduce protections and decrease natural well-being.

Overall, Wenk’s removal has symbolized the threat posed to human rights when environmental health is not prioritized. As citizens who depend on nature and its resources, we must fight to preserve this basic human right. It is our civic duty to fight back — to write and petition our representatives, protest environmental degradation, and raise awareness of environmental human rights through our actions and words. The United States’ relationship with environmental human rights is more disconcerting each day; as we move backwards instead of forward, we put the lives of millions of people at risk. How many more people must become sick — how many more people must die — until we realize our right to a safe environment and our duty to protect it?

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