Yellowstone’s new director feels his position is a homecoming

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The East Gate will swing open Friday to a line of cars waiting to experience year 147 of the world’s first national park. With six months in the driver’s seat as Yellowstone’s new superintendent, Cameron “Cam” Sholly is ready to roll.

He came to the park in a tough way last year, after former superintendent Dan Wenk hinted he was being forced out by the Trump administration.

Many in the press framed Sholly’s promotion as a Trump administration soap opera, with Sholly labeled by some as the administration’s new “yes man.”

“There was a lot of hyperbole around the transfer in the media and how that played out,” Sholly said from his office last week.

But there is no animosity between Sholly and former superintendent Wenk.

“We’re even better friends now than we had been,” Sholly said. “The transition is going well and I’m picking up where he left off.”

Not many had heard of Sholly prior to his appointment, despite his directing 61 National Park Service properties across 13 states in the Midwest Region. From his offices on the Missouri River in Omaha, he guided 2,000 employees and a $250 million budget — one of the more demanding jobs in the service.

There is a reason Sholly is relatively unknown: Unlike many in this self-promoting society, he doesn’t like to talk about himself or his accomplishments; he’d much rather highlight the fetes of his co-workers.

“We have a lot of great work going on here and I credit this team,” he said from a conference area in his third floor office. “All I am is an enabler.”

Sholly said he spent his first six months listening — “not only to the team here in the park,” he said, “but also partners that play a critical role in the park’s success.”

 

More people in the park

He knows the job comes with political footballs. That includes concerns of ever-increasing attendance and its impact on the park’s natural resources, staffing and infrastructure, visitor experience and gateways.

However, “the narrative that the park is being overrun is not true,” Sholly said.

While some have feared that park leaders might cap summer visitation in the same way they’ve limited winter trips, Sholly has no such plans.

“Let’s think about that one for a minute,” he said. “Five entrances, 2.2 million acres — bigger than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined — but at any given time 60 percent of the visitation is in the western corridor. Am I going to say there’s a daily visitation cap, we’re closed, you can’t come in? No. We’re not considering that right now.”

Instead, Sholly is looking at traffic solutions where needed. He used large sports events as an analogy: When tens of thousands of sports fans arrive and depart an arena, there’s traffic support to help alleviate congestion. He hopes to better manage the park’s high traffic areas with arena-style support, as well as additional signage.

Sholly also promises transparency: “There will be no secrets with what we’re trying,” he said.

Staffing levels have either stayed steady or dropped as the park has gone from the 3 million visitors to 4 million in the past five years, he said. Not expecting increased staffing, Sholly is focused on reallocating his resources to where they’re needed to help decrease stress over parking and increase visitor enjoyment.

Increasing enjoyment may be hard to do. Recent visitor data shows about 75 percent of people in Yellowstone are first-time visitors and around 95 percent have been highly satisfied with their time in the park.

“Yellowstone is a bucket list trip for most people,” Sholly said.

 

Growing up in Yellowstone

His family, background and training all led him to Yellowstone. Sholly’s father was a career park ranger. The family moved from NPS property to NPS property, eventually landing in northwest Wyoming.

In November of 1985, Sholly was a senior in the gateway town of Gardiner, Montana. A fire had destroyed the high school so classes were moved to Youth Conservation Corps facilities at Mammoth Hot Springs. Between hikes into the backcountry and fishing trips, Sholly worked a part-time job flipping burgers at the Mammoth Terrace Grill, just a few hundred yards from the superintendent’s office.

“Everything looks exactly the same,” he said.

Sholly also worked as a floor sales employee at what is now the Mammoth General Store.

After high school, Sholly joined the Army, serving in both the infantry and as a military police officer. In a second stint, splitting his collegiate studies, he served overseas in combat during Operation Desert Shield/Storm. He earned a bachelor’s degree in management from St. Mary’s College of California and later obtained a master’s in environmental management from Duke University — with curriculum concentrations in environmental economics, law and policy.

During his summer breaks in college, he worked on maintenance crews in the park, hiking to the most isolated section of the park to work in the Thorofare.

The crew did two-day, 30-plus mile trips leading pack animals. It wasn’t easy duty in the Thorofare.

“I was beat up,” Sholly said of the adventures.

Traveling into one of the most isolated areas in the lower 48 states helped form an appreciation for the wildness of the park.

“The nice thing about this park is its wildness,” Sholly said. “About 1 percent of this park is roads and about 6 percent is developed areas. You can step off a road and in a very short amount of time feel like you’re in a very wild place.”

Most call Yellowstone superintendent the second-best job in the National Park Service — the best being the agency’s director. Yet in Washington, D.C., you can’t walk out the front door of your office, dodge a few elk and make your way to the terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs for solace.

 

Making first impressions

When Sholly arrived at Yellowstone last fall, he was two days too late to enter the East Gate: It had already been closed for construction at Fishing Bridge. But he still stopped in Cody to meet community leaders.

“With his history in the area, I think he’ll be sensitive to the local impact of the park,” said Claudia Wade, executive director of the Park County Travel Council. “He’s accessible — willing to have a conversation.”

Without the partnership with the park, Park County’s two entrances wouldn’t have a thriving tourism infrastructure, Wade said. She believes the new director understands the ownership gateway communities feel.

“It’s everybody’s park, but it’s our backyard,” she said.

David Wilms of the National Wildlife Federation met Sholly last year, while serving as a senior policy adviser to then-Gov. Matt Mead; Wilms said Sholly came off as passionate and engaging.

“I also have yet to hear anyone say anything critical of him, which speaks volumes about his character and reputation,” Wilms said of the new superintendent. “I’m confident that he’ll be a great asset for Yellowstone National Park, and the State of Wyoming.”

 

A proactive approach

Sholly said he wants to be proactive in identifying future problems. He points to the infiltration of invasive lake trout to drive his point home. While Yellowstone National Park Fisheries Supervisor Todd Koel and his team have been making great strides in eliminating the Yellowstone cutthroat trout-devouring species, park officials were slow to react once the problem was found, Sholly said.

“We spent more money last year and got less fish, which is a good trend,” he said. “What I’m asking now is, where is the next lake trout issue, so to speak — what do we need to do today to be more aggressive in combating the proliferation of non-native species?”

“What I don’t want to do is be in a reactionary mode of waiting until something gets so bad that we’re forced to put massive amounts of effort, money and the risk associated with losing key species,” he said.

Cheatgrass is already on Sholly’s radar and he’s actively searching for other issues. Ensuring a positive future for the park is the legacy he seeks.

“Generally speaking,” he said, “this ecosystem is in tremendous shape.”

Even when stationed elsewhere, the Sholly family made frequent trips to Yellowstone to fish and enjoy an occasional round of golf on local links. Sholly’s happy where he is and hopes to have a long road ahead at Yellowstone.

“This park is an amazing place,” he said. “One of the beautiful things about it is, it may be a little busier, but not a lot has changed. The Park Service is doing its job here, which is protecting this place for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Sholly will be reunited with his family in June, when they leave Omaha. His son will attend high school in Gardiner for his senior year, just as Cam did, and Sholly plans to map out many backcountry hikes, fishing and family fun. Just like everyone who comes to the park.

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