Cam Sholly returns back to America’s crown jewel where his career began. In this long conversation, he talks priorities, values, mission and what we can expect.
By Todd Wilkinson
When Cameron “Cam” Sholly officially took the reins of Yellowstone last autumn, the new superintendent of America’s original national park was excited by the opportunity to assume the top field management position in the entire National Park Service.
The upshot was that years of cultivating diverse experience had paid off and Sholly would be returning to a place where he had spent his high school years when his father served as Yellowstone’s chief ranger. The downside was that given the controversial circumstances surrounding the departure of his predecessor and friend, Dan Wenk, the media wanted to barrage him with questions.
Looming largest was whether former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and his fellow political appointees expected Sholly to be a “yes person” who was being placed at the Yellowstone helm to carry out an agenda. Sholly made clear he was given no marching orders except to do a good job.
Integrity matters to Sholly. Besides serving grunt jobs paying his dues in national park ranger ranks, and serving in the military, and the California Highway Patrol and, more recently, overseeing the Park Service’s huge Midwestern region, Sholly believes in the mission of his agency. “For the enjoyment and benefit of the people,” the motto chiseled into the Roosevelt Archway, and clear mandates spelled out in the 1916 Park Service Organic Act that make resource protection a priority, are pretty straightforward guideposts, he says.
If you ask him, he’ll tell you he really does believe in the possibility of leaving a crown jewel park like Yellowstone in better condition than he found it. Last summer, I had an opportunity interview Sholly for Mountain Journal shortly after his promotion to Yellowstone was announced. Below is an excerpt.
Todd Wilkinson: There’s been a lot of speculation relating to your arrival in Yellowstone. It is happening concurrently with park superintendent Dan Wenk being forcibly reassigned. Your thoughts?
CAMERON SHOLLY: Dan and I have been friends for a long time. I worked under him when he was National Park Service deputy director in DC in 2007-08 and he actually gave the final approval to put me into my first superintendency in 2009 when he was acting director.
He’s had a great career and has had a very good seven-year run in Yellowstone. He has built a lot of trust with communities and partners during his tenure, and has collaboratively resolved many issues.
He can be proud of what has been accomplished there and I am thankful to him for his service to the NPS.
Wilkinson: Can you share any perspective on how this all happened?
SHOLLY: As far as the question about him being forcibly reassigned, he has made his points fairly clearly. There really is no reason for me to weigh in further. It serves no purpose. The job is hard enough and my focus will be on how I can best serve Yellowstone and its team moving forward.
Wilkinson: During your career you’ve intersected with some of the giants of the Park Service over the last several decades. What stands out to you about the esprit de corps of the agency?
SHOLLY: I’ve never subscribed to any one person being responsible for esprit de corps or morale in an organization.
There are influencers, both positive and negative, at every level of any organization. Senior level positions within the NPS have the primary responsibility to set and guide the trajectory of our agency. That said, any movement in the right direction requires every person in the organization to have a voice and help shape the future.
We have one of the most noble missions in the world. However, we fail without an organized, open, and honest team approach.
We have positive successes every day all over this agency. We have strong esprit de corps and morale in many areas of the organization. We also have the opposite, and have a lot of work to do, whether that be in continuing to build positive morale, or continued efforts to prevent and eliminate sexual harassment and hostile work environments. These are things that have plagued our agency for years and require substantial continued focus and attention in the future.
Wilkinson: In the beginning, you were a seasonal maintenance worker in Yellowstone. Then you went to Yosemite and were a seasonal backcountry ranger where you came in contact with Mike Finley. How has he been a mentor?
SHOLLY: I’ve known Mike a long time and have always appreciated his voice and perspectives. He is a conservation champion and has one of the most impressive field leadership resumes in the NPS history. You don’t become superintendent of Everglades, Yosemite, and Yellowstone (along with his other major assignments), and take on the issues he did, without having a backbone and a demonstrated ability to make tough decisions.
I have immense respect for him and have really appreciated his support over the years. He’s never hesitated to give me advice, or his opinion, and has pushed me in the right direction from early on in my career.
Wilkinson: Your father was well known in the NPS. How has he impacted you?
SHOLLY: He has always been a big champion of the NPS mission in every job he’s held. His father was the chief ranger of Big Bend and Shenandoah, and superintendent of Badlands back in the 1940s and 1950s. He died in Badlands when my father was only 14. That undoubtedly had a huge impact on him as a young teenager. He was later severely wounded and lost an eye as a U.S. Marine officer in Vietnam.
My father gave 40 years of his life to public service and almost gave the ultimate sacrifice for his country. I’ve always admired his perseverance. He never hesitated to try new things and push the envelope. He also didn’t hesitate to push me hard, something I’ve appreciated more and more as time has gone on.
Wilkinson: Do you feel any pressure of having to fulfill expectations?
SHOLLY: A few thoughts relating to your question about the Secretary possibly putting a “yes-person” in place. First, I think you’d be hard pressed to find someone I’ve worked with that would call me a “yes” person, at least as it relates to the context of your question.
Second, we execute actions for the people we work for, be it this administration or others. All of us have an obligation to uphold the law and mission of the National Park Service. That said, any notion that the leadership of any Department can’t direct legal actions, have conversations or differences in opinion about how we manage and operate, evaluate or change policies and priorities, is nonsensical.
Wilkinson: How would you describe your core values?
SHOLLY: Optimism, perseverance, resilience, and brutal honesty.
Wilkinson: Being a point of American pilgrimage, being the heart of the most iconic ecosystem in the country, being a topic of debate since its founding which preceded statehood for Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, and now being discovered as a birthright by a wider cross-section of citizens, Yellowstone is known for being a pressure cooker. What have you told your wife about the park community and the park’s high profile which is unsurpassed?
SHOLLY: Yellowstone is unquestionably a global icon and people care very deeply about many aspects of the park and surrounding area. As you know, when major issues meet disagreement by passionate people, it can cause substantial pressure on decision makers. Superintendents face substantial pressure on a variety of fronts in these jobs and that pressure varies depending
Regarding my wife, she and I have been to Yellowstone many times together over the past 25 years and she knows the park and surrounding areas very well. Prior to becoming a stay-at-home mom, she had a very successful career in sales and hotel management.
She has done an amazing job raising our son. She is a very grounded person and the primary reason for any successes I’ve had in my career. She’s very familiar with Park Service politics because she’s lived it— good and the bad. She’s adapted to 10 moves in the last 25 years and she regularly gives me better advice than I give her.
Wilkinson: You’ve been in the thick of bison management issues elsewhere on the high plains, working with tribes, addressing worries about disease, and respecting the natural history and biology of the animal. How will you draw upon that as you step into the Yellowstone superintendent’s post? It comes a pivotal time when a new bison management plan could set a different direction and offer a fresh start.
SHOLLY: It would be premature to talk bison or about any specific Yellowstone issue substantively at this point. I haven’t been briefed on a single issue yet and we’ll be working on a transition schedule once my start date gets closer.
I am not the type to go in and just start reversing course on years of work, nor have I been directed to do so on any issues there.
Once I get there, I will spend the majority of my time listening and asking questions on key issues. Generally speaking, things that are in motion, and on a good track, will stay that way.
It would be irresponsible for me to say there will not be changes in the future, but at this point I’m not going to speculate on what those might be.
I will say that if we change course on anything, people will know why change is happening. I’m cognizant that there are very deep emotions and other factors in play with many of the issues there. I’m also confident we will continue to work through them together.
Wilkinson: You’ve also had experience in working on concerns about Chronic Wasting Disease. This is a huge issue for ungulate herds in Greater Yellowstone and the three surrounding states. For the public, what’s important to know?
SHOLLY: These diseases unfortunately, be it brucellosis or CWD, have major impacts on how we manage wildlife in parks.
As an example here in the Midwest region, CWD has played a major role in the elk management strategy we have implemented over the past years at Wind Cave NP. A strategy that has been developed with the state of SD.
CWD is a classic example of where science is essential in helping us determine the best path forward. Fortunately, we have outstanding wildlife biologists and experts from USGS, NPS and South Dakota to help us identify the range of appropriate actions that should be considered/taken to attempt to control disease prevalence.
In 2016, the elk herd in Wind Cave National Park was nearly double the target population, and the CWD prevalence rate exceeded 9 percent, much higher than was originally thought. The culling operations we’ve conducted over the past years are geared in part to help scientists evaluate whether there is a correlation between population density and disease prevalence. The reduction has also been done to increase the available vegetation for other grazing/browsing species the park supports.
In a perfect world, I’d love to see every species able to move freely beyond artificial boundaries. However, in many of these parks, where we artificially constrain the natural migration of species, some level of active management is usually necessary, be it to attempt to control the spread of disease, or ensure the landscape can handle the number of species living on it.
Wilkinson: We live in a time when some willfully choose to ignore or deny the findings of science. What are the dangers of that? What is the value of empirical data and why, sometimes, is good information alone not enough?
SHOLLY: Science is the backbone of our decision making and our decisions, especially relating to conservation, have to be grounded in credible science and the law. Policy plays an important role here as it helps us manage consistently across the agency and within the intent of the law.
Scienceless decisions are the fastest way to the impairment of NPS resources. You can’t just guess when you manage what we manage. However, how science is used, who is doing the science, how defensible the scientific data is relating to a prescribed action, how we do our best to look for commonalities when there are divergent scientific opinions? Those are legitimate questions that should be asked and addressed to the best degree possible prior to developing or solidifying a course of action.
To your question, I agree that some science is better than no science. That said, I do not hesitate to question assumptions made in scientific conclusions or whether sufficient and accurate baseline and historical data are used to develop credible scientific conclusions. And questioning scientific methodology is not always bad and can actually make the science stronger and more compelling in the long run.
It seems we’re living in a world where any question of “science” is immediately taken as a non support of science. That’s as equally dangerous as anyone who thinks there shouldn’t be science.
Overall, science is essential and extremely important to supporting our decisions, not only in Yellowstone, but across this agency.
Wilkinson: Why does Yellowstone arouse such passion and why does it matter?
SHOLLY: People care. And Yellowstone epitomizes nearly everything people love about their parks. Doesn’t matter if it’s Yellowstone or other park units, we didn’t have over 330 million visitors to the system last year because of a lack of passion for the system.
Wilkinson: How do you stay humble?
SHOLLY: Realize every day that the around you people know a lot more than you do. Learn from them.
Wilkinson: You are quite familiar, having lived it, with the frequent uprooting that comes with civil service, especially in the early and mid-level stages of a career. What do you remember about growing up in that environment?
SHOLLY: I think the best way to appreciate our national parks is to be in them as much as possible. I’ve been fortunate from that perspective, both as a child, and throughout my career.
Growing up in national parks was very memorable and has given me an incredible appreciation for the value of our national park system. I’ve lived in or around parks for much of my life. Yosemite (three times), Crater Lake, Hawaii Volcanoes Yellowstone, and others.
Wilkinson: You’ve mentioned how you appreciate wildland parks being places set apart from the kinds of environments from where most Americans—and the vast majority of all visitors in general— are coming from.
SHOLLY: My earliest national park memory was hiking trails and throwing rocks in the Merced River in Yosemite at age 4. My best childhood memories growing up are of Crater Lake, where I was able to explore so many parts of that park over five years – fishing from Wizard Island all day by myself as a 10-year-old, and cross country skiing around the rim in the winter.
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to immerse myself in the Yellowstone backcountry when I was younger. I have spent considerable time in the Thorofare and Mountain Creek regions of the park, and there are very few places like the Yellowstone backcountry in the Lower 48.
The backcountry gives us something very difficult to find in this country- an incredible sense of timelessness. And that is something very worthy of protecting for the future.
Wilkinson: In some ways, you are coming back full circle. You arrived in Yellowstone as a teenager and graduated from Gardiner High School, the gateway town on the northern border of the park. Now you are returning as the superintendent—the top position in America’s oldest national park and the most prestigious field position in the Park Service? Thoughts about this homecoming?
SHOLLY: When I arrived in Yellowstone as a teenager, I was actually half way though my junior year. The high school in Gardiner had burned down in 1985, so we all attended school temporarily up in the park, at the YCC camp above Mammoth Hot Springs.
I flipped burgers for the concessioner during the summer between my junior and senior years there at the grill in Mammoth. Then worked in the sporting goods department at Hamilton Stores after graduation, before going into the military.
Living there in my youth definitely gives me a different perspective than what would be usual. And I have a special appreciation for those communities, not just Gardiner, but many others around the park as well.
Wilkinson: If a twenty-something showed up at your office today and said they’re considering applying for a Park Service job but are worried about the politics and anti-government sentiments, what would you tell them?
SHOLLY: Still the best jobs in the world, helping achieve one of the most noble missions in the world. Politics can’t and won’t change that.
The reality is most NPS employees are on the ground doing the real work every day. They need support to do their jobs, leaders who actually listen and respond to their concerns, clarity and involvement in decision making, and good communications.
They’re the ones making a difference and they need to be the focus. We’re here for them. Not vice versa.
Wilkinson: You obviously have some of your favorite corners of Yellowstone and we understand your reluctance for wanting to not identify them. Can you speak to why the backcountry is such an attraction for you and are there any spots you can riff about?
SHOLLY: The wildness of parks like Yellowstone represent some of the best America has to offer. There is something about the remoteness, the topography, and so many places that are truly untrammeled, that really make the Yellowstone backcountry special.
Of course, one factor is, the deeper in the backcountry you are, the experience is always coupled with a healthy dose of fear, knowing you’re not at the top of the food chain. That changes your mindset and is one of the most fulfilling things I find about remote parts of national parks.
The Thorofare is my favorite part of the park. Between the headwaters of the Yellowstone River and the furthest distance from a manmade road in the lower 48 states, it’s spectacular in every way.
Trail Creek, at the end of the southeast arm of Lake Yellowstone is my favorite spot on the lake.
I have a stark memory of a grizzly charge near Mountain Creek, another great place. Been to the top of Eagle Peak, and there are too many good fishing spots to mention. I’m also a big fan of Shoshone Lake, Slough Creek, and the Lamar areas.
When you’re in any of those places, and those are just a few, you realize very quickly why what we do is so important.
Wilkinson: Has being away from Yellowstone altered your perspective of what it is?
SHOLLY: It hasn’t. It’s one of the most spectacular places on the planet. I thought that 30 years ago. I think it now. I’m looking forward to making it better for 30 years from now.
Wilkinson: Many superintendents say they want to leave Yellowstone in better shape than they found it. In practical terms, how is that possible?
CS: There is a lot to that question. I think everyone understands the value of Yellowstone to this country. Whether they look at it through an economic lens as a business owner, a conservation lens, or recreation, education or preservation, etc. The answer in many ways depends on your perspective and what you consider “better.”
The Roosevelt Arch at the northeast entrance has “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People” inscribed. People read that and think it’s about the people. It is and it isn’t. It’s not that simple.
The key word in that sentence is the word “For.” “For” is the park. If you don’t have the park, you have nothing for the people to enjoy or benefit from.
So irrespective of how you look at it, when there is a conflict between the park and the people, our priority has to be making decisions that serve in the best long-term interests of the park resources and values. If we don’t get that right, and the rest doesn’t matter.
Leaving the park in better shape? That should always be the goal. Ultimately, the goal of “better” is possible if the team strikes a balance in decision making, develops solutions that achieve common objectives, understand where there is give and take, but ultimately remembers what has to take precedence.
At the end of the day, short term sacrifices are not worth the long-term negative consequences.
Wilkinson: What’s important for us to know about you?
SHOLLY: I think I’ve covered enough and appreciate the opportunity to open this up. I know not everyone agrees with everything I’ve said here.
While I’ve made fairly clear my thoughts on various topics, I have an open mind and look forward to working with the tremendous people in the Greater Yellowstone Region.
Even if people disagree with my/our decisions, they will have no question where we stand, and why.
I’m cognizant of my inability to please everyone, but we can make very good decisions together. I will always listen. And on the vast majority of issues, we can find balance, mutual agreement, and take actions that achieve common objectives, in Yellowstone, and beyond.
Wilkinson: What’s an example of a bad superintendent?
SHOLLY: No leader will wreck an organization faster than someone who doesn’t know how to listen and respect opinions, and give the proper time and attention to understanding people’s perspectives. Some of the very best ideas I’ve seen in my career have been generated at the field and operational level. Our job is to listen.
Seldom, if ever, will you find a leader in the NPS, even at the SES level, that has mastered all elements of park management. I actually can’t name one, active or retired. There is just too much out there. A lot of people talk. But anyone who pretends to have it all down, isn’t living in reality, and probably isn’t that successful in all honesty.
The bottom line is you can’t know everything about everything, so don’t even pretend. People will see right through you. Do you know what you don’t know, and do you know how, who, and when to ask for help? Can you make and defend decisions, especially when they’re not popular? Most importantly, do you have the right team and partners around you to facilitate success? At the end of the day, if you think it’s all about you, get a different job.
About The Author
The New West, Todd Wilkinson
Todd Wilkinson has been an award-winning journalist for more than three decades and is best known for his coverage of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. His work has appeared in publications ranging from National Geographic to The Guardian and The Washington Post. He also is author of several critically-acclaimed books. His column, The New West, was not long ago named best column for small-town newspapers in America. He is founder of the non-profit, online journalism site, Mountain Journal (mountainjournal.org) devoted to probing the intersection between people and nature in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
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