Bern Shanks

Stepping out of your Comfort Zone

Recorded: April 14, 2012

Bern Shanks talks about his early experience as a federal employee in the Grand Teton National Park, and what he found that changed his life.

In the 1970’s, as a young federal employee working in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, Dr. Shanks observed something that he could not get out of his mind. He learned that a prominent senator was grazing hundreds of his private cattle on federally owned land in Grand Teton National Park—at a cost to taxpayers. Senator Hanson served on the Natural Resources Committee and at every turn fought increases in grazing fees on federal lands.

For decades Senator Hanson and his family profited handsomely from the extremely low fees charged for grazing on National Park land. Federal grazing fees were—and still are—about one-third of the cost of a grazing permit on private lands. Even as the director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Dr. Shanks tried to change these generous grazing rules. In the end, he paid with his career, the dear price that whistleblowers sometimes pay. Dr. Shanks continues to promote integrity in federal and state policy and remains an outspoken guardian of the Public Trust.

Bern Shanks: I grew up in a small town in Illinois, El Paso Illinois, which is a flat town of less than 2000 people, and surrounded by miles and miles of cornfields and soybeans. And through a high school biology teacher got me interested in working in the parks and I applied and I got a job in Yellowstone. I was 19 and took the train out, back when they had passenger trains, near the park and set up on a fire lookout 15 miles from the nearest road, and where my supplies were brought up by a mule once a week by and by cowboys, I could see three lights at night and I spent 12 weeks up there and a time to think about the environment. Had time to think, I read a lot and the last day that I was up there was the first time I heard an elk bugle and the hills around the lookout were echoing with the sound of the bugle which you know is a magical sound.

Bern Shanks: And over the next few years I met some really pioneer environmentalists and became a friend of Dr. Adolf Murray who was the first scientist in North America to study wolves. And he was very much into the spirit of the wilderness, the spirit of the land. I spent several years working in the national parks – six of them – and thought I wanted to be a park ranger. Thought that was just the sort of life where you could move every few years and I tried to develop the skills that would keep me in the western parks so I took up firefighting and I became a smoke jumper, learned a lot of the outdoor skills ..and I got my perfect job.

Bern Shanks: I was a young ranger at the Grand Teton National Park and I ended up with a ranger station 20 miles from park headquarters…and I had a snowmobile and I had a patrol car and I caught poachers and I did mountain rescues and hiked and climbed and I climbed all the Tetons on weekends; but then I see things like [Senator] Hanson’s grazing and all the politics of that – and it offended my sense of what the park was for – and we would – we could literally give somebody a citation for picking a flower a wildflower. We certainly wouldn’t give them a citation for poaching a deer, something like that, and the juxtaposition of those contrasts certainly bothered me. And in winter I would drive down to the headquarters and work on the grazing records, and they were a disaster in themselves.

Bern Shanks: And one day I was headed home. The Tetons in the winter have an inversion and the cold air gets trapped by the warm air and it actually bends the light and the mountains loom closer – it was a beautiful, beautiful winter day, the Tetons were brilliant and loomed so large – and I looked out and said I can’t do this for 30 years, I can’t do this I have to have a job that means more than that. And I used to tell my students this when I taught, and they were amazed; like how could you give that up? And yet Sacramento was a city that I never imagined myself living, and it was a very exciting time – working for you [Huey Johnson]. And a time – as you know, you hired me to be your Watt watcher. And yet the contacts that I made in the park service were still useful so that the earlier experience was valuable; but for some of us, I think we reach a time where we want more out of that.