John Wessels finds himself in what is arguably one of the best jobs in the National Park Service, that as director of the agency's sprawling Intermountain Region. And yet, there probably aren't many who envy him at this point.
On his plate is the decade-long quagmire surrounding the question of whether there should be recreational snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park, border problems in such places as Big Bend National Park and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, and the matter of how to maintain adequate water flows in the Colorado River through Grand Canyon National Park.
And those are just the most headline-catching issues.
Swirling in the background of all this is the fact that Mr. Wessels didn't rise up through the Park Service ranks to this position, something some in the agency might bristle against, but rather joined the agency a decade ago. He came to the Park Service from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Boulder, Colorado, where he managed financial and administrative functions and systems for the national physics laboratory.
On top of that, in the eyes of at least a few Park Service personnel in the region, Mr. Wessels succeeded one of the most polarizing regional directors in recent memory, one whom he worked for as associate director for administration, business and technology.
Despite these issues and challenges, Mr. Wessels, an individual who admittedly sees the glass "half-full," not half-empty, couldn't be happier. No small part of his outlook stems, he said, from the current staff throughout the region.
“I have to tell you, I love coming into this office every day," he said during a wide-ranging telephone interview with the Traveler from his Denver office. "There are really smart people out in our parks, and in here in the regional office. We have a lot of folks who have committed their careers to being experts in pine bark beetle, in water quality, in air tour management, in natural resource protection and inventory monitoring.
"We’ve got really sharp folks, both here in Denver and out in the field, so my job I have to tell you is primarily to make sure that parks have what they need to do their jobs, to make sure that I help convene the right people to deal with the right issues," he said. "Long ago I got over the notion that I had to be the smartest guy in the room, and what I love most about my job is I get to work with a lot of really smart folks who know what they do very well.
“My job is to help them be highly effective, and whether that’s Colorado River management, Yellowstone winter use, pine bark beetle, water issues, you can just think border issues north and south, land issues. There’s no shortage of significant challenges and the best part is, we’ve got a lot of smart folks that are committed to addressing them."
There indeed is no shortage of issues in the largest region in the National Park System, one with 92 parks encompassing 11.1 million acres, 6,000 permanent and seasonal employees, more than 230 national historic landmarks, and more than 11,000 properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
It's enough to make you want to call in sick.
Mr. Wessels sees things just to the contrary, though, and is looking forward to working with his far-flung staff to "help pull them together and help them be effective."
Of Snowmobiles, Politics, and Yellowstone National Park
Perhaps the thorniest issue he inherited is that of winter-use in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and whether snowmobiles should play a big role in it. While the Clinton administration imposed a ban on recreational snowmobiling in the parks back in 2000, the Bush administration almost immediately tossed that aside. Ever since, the issue has been batted back and forth by lawyers, whose efforts led park researchers to spend more than $10 million on a variety of environmental studies, from full-blown environmental impact statements and one supplemental environmental impact statement to an environmental assessment. And now they're back at work on yet another EIS.
So hot is this issue that Jon Jarvis, during his July 2009 Senate confirmation hearing as Park Service director, found himself practically backed to the wall by Sen. John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican who believes there should be more, not fewer, snow machines in Yellowstone.
"The New York Times had an editorial last week that said there shouldn't be any winter access by snow machines in Yellowstone Park, period," said the Republican. "You support snowmobile access to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, is that what I hear you say?"
"At this point I cannot commit one way or another," responded Mr. Jarvis. "I don't know the details of this, but I do commit to winter use and winter access, and a sustainable decision, one that can provide continuity and planning for the gateway communities and for the park itself."
"Planning," replied the senator. "If you say there's no snowmobiles, that's an absolute answer, but that's not one that anybody in Wyoming is looking for. So, you said you were committed to winter access. I want to know that you're committed to winter access for snow machines in Yellowstone National Park."
With such a heavy political hand being wielded by Wyoming's congressional delegation, Mr. Wessels you might think would see the writing on the wall in terms of snowmobiles and be concentrating not on whether there should be any, but rather how many there should be. He doesn't necessarily see it that way, however.
“I think we elect representatives in our country for a reason. That’s to represent individuals’ perspective and collective perspective, so I actually don’t have a problem with the role of elected representatives in forming public policy," he said. "I think our job as civil servants is to try and do right by the resource. I think our job here in the National Park Service is, we speak for the resource, and we don’t have a political spin on it because our job is to preserve and protect unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations and natural and cultural resources of the National Park system.
“That sounds like a commercial, but I have to tell you I take those words, very, very seriously. So while I respect the role of politics, and I’m a realist -- an elected government is the cornerstone of why our country's lasted as long as it has -- I think our job is to tell the truth relative to the resources," continued the regional director.
The Park Service did not do such a good job when it came to permitting personal watercraft in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and Gulf Islands National Seashore, he said, referring to a judge's ruling earlier this summer that overturned those parks' watercraft regulations.
“I think what we’re doing better on Yellowstone this go-around, after a decade at it, is that we’re really approaching this with the perspective of good science. An open process, public participation," the regional director said. "I think we’re taking a much more thoughtful step through this very, very difficult public policy issue with very passionate folks on both ends of the spectrum.”
While Mr. Wessels has no control over the politics involved in the issue, he said he can see that the Park Service does a thorough job when it comes to analyzing the issue from all directions.
“I can’t speak to what the elected representatives want or don’t want, because at the end of the day my job is to see what does the science say," he pointed out. "What are the resource impacts, where do we hit that impairment, that very difficult and very important threshold. My advice, just so folks know, at the end of the day my perspective is driven by what’s best for the resource.
“Now I’d be naive to say that I didn’t understand that we all work in a political environment. But at the end of the day I think we all want the same thing. We all want a lovely, pristine, preserved Yellowstone National Park.”
Make the Best Use Of What You've Got
On another issue, Mr. Wessels said that while a case can be made that the Park Service needs better funding to maintain its parks and their infrastructure, today's economic realities are such that the agency needs to make do the best it can with what it has. That said, he noted that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act treated the Park Service quite well, with an infusion of more than $750 million.
Nearly a third of that amount -- $200 million -- went to the Intermountain Region, where Mr. Wessels in his previous role helped prioritize where those funds were spent. A good chunk went to Dinosaur National Monument to pay for a visitor center to replace the old one that was declared unstable.
"In this climate, both politically as well as I think just fundamentally, what all Americans are dealing with these days, we’ve got to make the best of what we’ve got," he noted. "And we’ve got to demonstrate to people that we are able to make decisions about how to and where to best allocate our money and how to stretch a dollar as far as it will go."
Leave The Parks Better Than You Found Them
As for the fact that he succeeds Mike Snyder, a regional director who was portrayed by many as being determined to cut the region's budget regardless of the impacts on parks or personnel, Mr. Wessels said he's his own person and not carrying the same mindset as the former regional director.
“I start from a fundamental place of respect for all the folks that I work with. And everybody who sits in this office will have their detractors, that’s part of my job," he said. "I’m under no illusion that everybody will be happy with decisions that I make. But I have to tell you, I am my own person with my own ideas, my own style. I think I understand the [Interior] Secretary’s priorities, and Director Jarvis’s priorities pretty well.
“There’s a sign that hangs in my office, right opposite my front door, and it says, ‘What have you done for the parks today?,’ and that is the filter that I use for the decisions that happen in this regional office," Mr. Wessels said. "We are here to support parks. I’m fortunate to be here, I want to help parks, I want to continue the traditions that have been started for us, and to leave the parks better than I found them.”