A regional National Park Service boss who oversees Yellowstone, Grand Teton and dozens of other parks in eight states is rejecting a reassignment ordered by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
That federal official is Intermountain Regional Director Sue Masica, and she affirmed through a colleague Monday that she instead will end a 33-year tenure working for the federal government.
“I can confirm that Sue Masica, in response to the directed reassignment ... she is exercising her option to retire, which she will do at the end of August,” National Park Service regional spokesman Pat O’Driscoll said. “She informed the staff here in the Intermountain Regional Office [of her plans] this month.”
The loss of Masica is one kink in an opaque National Park Service reorganization that’s already costing Yellowstone its superintendent, Dan Wenk. Separate from the forced reassignments, Grand Teton National Park Superintendent David Vela is rumored to be leaving his post to lead the agency.
Former National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis appointed Masica to her current post. He called her “incredibly skilled and smart and a very solid manager.” He described the U.S. Department of the Interior’s personnel shuffle as arbitrary and damaging to morale.
“There’s no sort of logical good for the Park Service or the government here,” Jarvis told the News&Guide. “Moving them out of their current jobs really doesn’t make any management sense. I think it’s just a power play on the part of the [Interior] department to say that they’re in charge.”
It’s not surprising, Jarvis said, that Masica’s reassignment is prompting retirement because she has aging parents in the Denver area and was unlikely to leave for a job that would have taken her to Omaha, Nebraska, to lead the service’s Midwestern Region.
No explanation for shuffle
Masica, Wenk and Vela are all part of the Park Service’s Senior Executive Service, the uppermost echelon of the agency that includes 28 positions. These high-profile officials, who include regional directors and superintendents of flagship national parks, are paid at least $185,000 but also can be moved with 60 days’ notice if the Park Service desires.
The Washington Post broke a story this spring that detailed the unprecedented executive employee reorganization that’s prompting both Wenk and Masica to retire. The planned shuffle outlined by The Post sends Midwestern Regional Director Cameron “Cam” Sholly west to Wyoming to lead Yellowstone. If he didn’t retire instead, Wenk was to be sent to Washington to oversee the National Capital Region.
Masica’s directive under the plan was to replace Sholly in the Midwestern office. Replacing her in the Denver regional office would be Lake Mead National Recreation Area Superintendent Lizette Richardson. However, O’Driscoll said the incoming Intermountain director is unconfirmed and “hasn’t been announced.”
In the months since the reorganization was leaked the Park Service and its Department of the Interior parent have neither publicized nor explained the reasoning for the moves.
The Park Service’s Washington office did not respond Tuesday to interview requests for this story. The press office to for Zinke’s Interior Department also didn’t respond to interview requests.
Masica declined an interview with the News&Guide.
In her role as Park Service Intermountain regional director she was in charge of some 90 parks and 6,000 employees. That was the final step of a long ascension in the federal government, which began 33 years ago and shifted to the Park Service some 20 years ago. Before landing in Denver in 2014, Masica was a regional director in Alaska for 5 1/2 years, O’Driscoll said. She spent a decade working a variety of jobs at the agency’s Washington, D.C., headquarters before that.
Park Service retiree Phil Francis, a 41-year veteran, said losing a seasoned veteran like Masica hurts the agency.
“It’s really a shame that this is happening to people who have done an outstanding job over their careers,” said Francis, who chairs the watchdog group Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks. “One of the things that Sue has is an outstanding quality of experience.”
Wenk’s involuntary departure has also drawn criticism from National Park Service advocates who say the respected 43-year agency veteran was wronged and deserved an explanation for being moved in his twilight professional years.
After being informed of his reassignment Wenk announced he would instead retire in the spring of 2019. In the meantime he’d focus on resolving several issues he saw as outstanding, like the bison quarantine program, and managing record crowds and transboundary wildlife.
That plan, however, was rejected by acting Park Service Director Daniel Smith, who told Wenk he’d be out of a job by August if he didn’t take the reassignment, according to The Post.
Yellowstone clarified the circumstances of his departure last week, announcing that his last day would be Sept. 29. A call with news media about the retirement was scheduled for this week, though the press event was later canceled. The public affair’s office said the call was postponed “until Superintendent Wenk and NPS leadership finalize a retirement transition plan.”
A message sent
Jarvis’ view is that the forced reassignments of outspoken, principled superintendents like Wenk are meant to send a message to the other Park Service personnel. Speaking out about issues outside of park boundaries, like grizzly bear hunting, he said, is not welcome in Zinke’s Interior Department.
“Those kinds of things — like climate change — they want the Park Service to be quiet about,” Jarvis said. “I think the movement of our most respected leaders sends a message that ‘We’re in charge, and you’re going to do what we tell you to do, and you better damn well do it.’”
The transfer, he said, was ordered with the knowledge that Wenk would instead retire.
“If they knew 1 percent of the background of Dan Wenk, they knew he would never go the National Capitol Region,” Jarvis said. “His dream job, of course, was superintendent of Yellowstone, and he was in that role. Anything else would have been a step down for him.”
The Park Service’s O’Driscoll described Masica’s departure as normal and part of the territory of being a high-level Senior Executive Service employee, he said.
“This kind of thing does happen from time to time and often does happen with changes in administration,” O’Driscoll said. “In that respect it is not an unusual type of change or move or reassignment.”
Jarvis also took advantage of the mobility afforded by the SES program during his eight-year directorship and even initiated reassignments that triggered retirements. But those moves stemmed directly from him, he said.
Directives from Interior
“This is different in that this is being directed by the Department of Interior,” Jarvis said. “None of the moves I made were directed by the department. They were all moves that were part of me assembling my team.”
In 18 months of Donald Trump’s presidency Zinke has yet to name a permanent director to lead the Park Service. Teton park’s Vela is the rumored candidate but has not been officially nominated, so there is no director to assemble a team.
Francis, the Park Service retiree, said he’d like to see his former employer be more transparent about its evolving game of executive musical chairs.
“When you don’t share information with people and you don’t share information with your staff, then people create their own stories,” Francis said. “That’s not exactly what we want to do: have people guess the reasons why. They have a right to know.”
Jarvis echoed the call for openness.
“And show a little respect for these people who have devoted 30, 40 years to public service,” he said. “They’re showing them zero respect as individuals and professionals.”