Proposed shake-up at National Park Service could make senior leaders hit the road

Proposed shake-up at National Park Service could make senior leaders hit the road
WASHINGTON – A major management shake-up could be underway at the National Park Service, including the proposed reassignment of the veteran superintendent of Yellowstone National Park and six other senior executives, according to several individuals familiar with the plan.

The transfers, which are not yet official, come just days after the Interior Department’s inspector general found that officials failed to explain why they shuffled 35 top Interior employees last June. That round of reassignments, which forced those staffers to decide on short notice whether to move or step down, prompted sharp criticism from Democratic lawmakers.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and his deputies have emphasized that they see shifting Senior Executive Service (SES) officials to different locations as a way to invigorate the department’s approach to decision-making. But some career staff and outside advocacy groups have suggested such moves can, in some cases, amount to retaliation for employees who have spoken out against the administration’s policies – especially given comments by Zinke that he has “30 percent of the crew that’s not loyal to the flag.”

“These multiple moves resemble a purge and have no apparent management motivation other than to marginalize and disrupt,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a frequent critic of Interior during the Trump administration.

Heather Swift, a department spokeswoman, said in an email Friday that the department had no announcements about personnel moves. She added, “Regarding SES moves in general, though, the Department is continually looking at ways to better utilize our workforce and senior leaders to improve the Department.”

The individuals familiar with the changes, including some who have been briefed on the plan, spoke on the condition of anonymity because the decisions have yet to be finalized by Interior’s Executive Resources Board. The board is composed of political appointees and department career staff.

The shake-up would affect at least seven executives within the park system, the individuals said. While several shifts would involve moving officials to less prestigious posts, a few would be promotions.

Margaret Goodro of Biscayne National Park in Florida would become the top executive in the Alaska regional office. Bert Frost, who currently holds that position, would be reassigned.

Frost is a witness in an inspector general investigation into P. Daniel Smith, currently the top-ranking Park Service official, who allegedly made a vulgar gesture in a hallway at Interior headquarters this January. A letter sent by an anonymous Park Service employee to Zinke said Smith “grabbed his crotch and his penis and acted out as though he was urinating on the wall” while relaying a story to Frost.

Dan Wenk, superintendent of the crown jewel, Yellowstone, would be ordered to report to Washington and the office covering the National Capital Region, according to several people with knowledge of the plan. Leaving the National Capital post would be Bob Vogel, bound for the southeast regional office in Atlanta.

Cameron “Cam” Sholly, the head of the Omaha office, would take over the Yellowstone job, to be replaced by Sue Masica, who currently is in charge of the Denver office. Masica’s post would be filled by Lizette Richardson, superintendent at Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Arizona and Nevada.

Ruch and other advocates see several problems with the transfers, including the fact that senior executives again are not receiving advance notice prior to reassignment. The Trump White House has yet to nominate a Park Service director.

“It’s a huge concern if they’re making giant wholesale changes across many national parks without having a National Park Service director,” said Aaron Weiss, media director at the Center for Western Priorities, another advocacy group. “That’s a Senate-confirmed position for a reason.”

Such a scrambling of top career executives is unprecedented, said Phil Francis, a former Park Service employee who now chairs the executive council of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks.

“That’s new to my experience, but of course I was only in the Park Service for 41 years,” Francis said. “We wonder about the motive. We don’t understand why. We haven’t seen a plan. We don’t know if it’s part of a greater strategy.”

As members of the Senior Executive Service, the staffers identified earn as much as $185,000 a year but are required to go wherever their bosses tell them to go. They have 60 days to accept a reassignment. If they decline, they must separate from the government through resignation or retirement.

The abrupt nature of the proposed shake-up has rattled some of the executives, according to a Park Service official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly. “It is a somewhat shocking way to suddenly hear that this is going to happen without much advance notice,” the official said.

Bill Valdez, president of the Senior Executives Association, which represents career senior executives, said someone being reassigned can file a complaint with the Merit Systems Protection Board or with the department’s inspector general. But such efforts take time and, as Valdez put it, “all the while that 60-day clock is ticking.”

“I’d hope these longtime Park Service stewards are being treated fairly and the political appointees are ensuring that these are moves that they welcome and not that they’re being pushed into them,” said Kristen Brengel, a spokesperson for the National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit that advocates for the system.

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