In 2016, the National Park Service celebrates its Centennial, honoring the last 100 years of protecting America’s most spectacular and significant places and looking ahead to the next 100 years of conservation. We sat down with Dan Wenk, current superintendent of Yellowstone to reminisce about the last century, and what he thought the challenges and opportunities are for the next century.
What stories from Yellowstone’s past resonate most with you?
What speaks to me is the vision, what it took to create this place 144 years ago. There was no model for what happened here, and to think people came together and said, “This is a place we need to protect, so it can be preserved for the future” is inspiring. Can you imagine that happening today?
What would Yellowstone be like today if it had not been protected?
The word that comes to mind is “exploited.” Half of the world’s geysers are in Yellowstone National Park, not because more didn’t exist anywhere else but because they have been protected here. We have the greatest wildlife show in the Lower 48. Would we have recovered grizzlies and wolves, if the park did not exist? Would you have one of the world’s last nearly intact ecosystems in the Earth’s temperate zone today? No.
What should every visitor know about wildlife?
They’re wild. I think a lot of people have a false sense of safety around the wildlife. Every year we have a number of people gored by bison and injured by elk. It’s tragic because people get injured and some killed. When you encounter bears or wolves on the road, stay in your car. When you hike, hike in groups, know the rules and always carry bear spray.
How has the park balanced protecting resources and providing visitor enjoyment?
“Balance” is an interesting word. What came out of the 1978 Redwoods Act was if the two values come into conflict, we err on the side of protecting natural resources. Historically, we study everything in this park, except our visitors. I can’t tell you our visitor demographics: where they come from nationally and internationally, their ages, whether we met their expectations. Last year we started a social science program to help us understand the dynamics of visitor use and preservation.
Why is the Centennial important?
We have a tremendous opportunity to tell our story to groups of people we have never been able to reach before. A national park is more than a vast landscape in the West. Parks comes in many shapes and sizes, including monuments, memorials and historical sites. I am concerned every day when I look at our visitors that they do not reflect America in terms of ethnicity and age range, so we need to do better.
How does the park engage youth?
We have residential programs like Youth Conservation Corps and Expedition!Yellowstone, but we also work with schools on curriculum-based programs. We connect with them in the park, or bring Yellowstone to them digitally. We also work with many organizations across the country engaging very diverse youth groups.
What are the park’s major challenges in the next 100 years?
We have to continue cultivating a new generation of stewards who care as passionately as their parents and grandparents about national parks, as well as new stewards who have no prior understanding of our national parks. There also are challenges of pressures like mining, logging, hunting and development at our borders. And how do you protect the great predators—grizzly bears and wolves? Wolves are delisted from the endangered species list in two of our neighboring states —Montana and Idaho —and have been delisted previously in Wyoming. How do you make sure you are protecting resources and establishing relationships with surrounding states, so the values of visitors to the park are respected, too?
What’s your favorite park memory?
My favorite experiences have been shared with family and friends. Last year, we were hiking when we saw a grizzly sow and her two cubs. We maintained a safe and very respectful distance. It was just us. I thought, “This is what it was like 150 years ago, and you can’t find that anywhere else.”
What about the next 100 years?
Right now, you can be farther from a road in the park’s backcountry than anywhere else in the Lower 48. Because it is a national park surrounded by national forest and wilderness areas, visitors will see it continue to be protected. But there may be limits on how people are able to enjoy the place in order to protect resources. I won’t guarantee they will see Old Faithful. It’s a dynamic thermal system that no one fully understands. Thirty years ago, Echinus Geyser was a favorite for me to watch because it erupted on a regular basis. Now it might erupt a couple of times a month.