Palmer “Chip” Jenkins, Jr., the superintendent of Grand Teton National Park, has been in his role for a little more than a year. KHOL News Director Kyle Mackie interviewed Jenkins about settling into the Tetons, the role of public lands and backcountry safety, following the recent death of 27-year-old Rad Spencer in the park.
Jenkins is the former superintendent of both Mount Rainer and North Cascades national parks and has more than 35 years of experience working in the National Park Service. The following interview transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
KYLE MACKIE/KHOL: Superintendent Jenkins, thank you so much for joining us today on KHOL.
CHIP JENKINS: Oh, thank you for the invitation to be here.
KHOL: We’re excited to have you here. And you’ve been in this role as superintendent of Grand Teton National Park for a little over a year now–
JENKINS: Yeah, right about 13 months.
KHOL: So, I’d love to start by asking you to reflect on, you know, your first 13 months in this job. What have you learned in that time? What have some of your biggest challenges been? How’s it been going?
JENKINS: It’s been going great. Part of it is because this is such a unique and amazing place. Grand Teton National Park, Jackson Hole, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, is truly a unique place and it draws unique people here. And the combination of all of that in terms of the place and the people have made this actually a really wonderful experience so far.
KHOL: I am betting that your job as superintendent of Grand Teton National Park sounds like a dream job to a lot of people, but I’m sure it’s also, you know, a lot more challenging than people might realize. And this hasn’t been the easiest past year for the park, from record visitation to really high-profile missing persons cases, like the Gabby Petito case, to drought and other climate impacts. What has it been like to be in charge through all of these difficult situations?
JENKINS: Well, first of all, I feel like I’ve won life’s lottery. It is a dream job for me and for many people in the National Park Service. There is no better place to want to aspire to be. And it really is an honor to be able to be here, to be able to work for these resources and with these people is a career-defining experience. And yeah, there are challenges. That’s part of the reason why it’s a great place to work. I think what most people don’t realize is a national park is actually it’s a lot like a county in a rural state. We have about 25,000 people that will visit the park on any given summer day. We run multiple wastewater treatment systems. We’re responsible for the roads and plowing the roads. We have our own law enforcement program. We have our own structural fire program. We run our own park medics. We also have education programs and we have IT and finance and budget, as well as also needing to work with dangerous animals like grizzly bears and bison. So, it is a multifaceted organization with incredibly talented and dedicated people. And that’s why it’s a great place to work.
KHOL: Yeah, I like that metaphor of the park as kind of its own city or county. That’s pretty amazing to think about.
JENKINS: Yeah, it is a lot like a municipality, including also, you know, we have our own housing, we have day care, you know, all of the things that you find in the community or almost all the things you find in the community, right? We need to provide that in the park, as well as also welcoming people from all over the world to come and visit the place and enjoy the place.
KHOL: Well, just a few balls to keep in the air, right?
JENKINS: Yeah. Right.
KHOL: Alright. I read a recent op-ed related to the bighorn sheep issue in the park, this kind of tension between backcountry recreation and conservation, which we don’t have to get into right now, but I wanted to ask about–this op-ed was kind of arguing that Americans should look at their public lands as a privilege and not necessarily as a right. But I know that’s an incredibly controversial argument, and people have all kinds of opinions about public lands here in Jackson and across the West and across the country. So, I wanted to ask you a bit about your kind of personal philosophy of public lands, and how that’s maybe evolved over your career in the park service.
JENKINS: Yeah. Well, I would certainly frame it differently than that because it is, you know, the first word of it is ‘public’ lands, right? And these lands belong to all Americans. And I would say one of the best things you can do in terms of right of ownership is to be a steward, is to take care of it. You know, if you own a house or if you own property or even just, you know, not even in the sense of owning land, but if you own your other property, you know, whether it’s a great pair of skis or an expensive mountain bike, you know, generally speaking, people care about it, right? You take care of it. You pay attention in terms of how you use it. You pay attention in terms of the condition that it is in. And I think that the best thing that people can do is they can pay attention to the condition of their public lands whether it’s Grand Teton or Yellowstone or any other part of our public lands. And you know, part of that is, yes, we welcome people to come and visit. And I think recreating responsibly, being able to take care of the land when you come and visit is one of the, you know, is what we need people to do, right? To be responsible owners of their public lands.
KHOL: I wonder how you think that the relationship in Jackson, with the Jackson Hole community to, you know, our surrounding public lands–we’re surrounded on all sides right by national forest [land], national park [land], etc. Is that sort of relationship any different than your experience at past parks? You were also superintendent at Mount Rainier before coming to Grand Teton and North Cascades. I know you’ve worked at several other huge iconic parks across the West. So, I just wonder how you find the kind of community relationship here in Jackson with the park versus some of the other ones that you’ve worked at?
JENKINS: Sure, there are things that are really unique. There are also things that are similar to some other places. Actually, what’s funny is as you were going through and framing that question, the place that came to mind that I worked [at] earlier in my career is a place called Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, which is on the Los Angeles and Ventura County line. Actually, the entire town of Malibu is actually inside the national recreation area boundary. It butts up against Beverly Hills. We actually had a ranger who had the Beverly Hills mailing address from there, you know, from the ranger station. And so, I just used that as a comparison in terms of the sense that we have, just like here in Jackson, we have people who loved the outdoors, love to be able to recreate, love to be able to see wildlife. They also have means, whether it’s financial means or the ability to exercise political influence. And I would say in many respects, that’s a blessing for Grand Teton.
I mean, Grand Teton National Park is what it is in large part because of the constructive relationship between the community and the park. I mean, if you think about it, it was almost 100 years ago where it was a collection of citizens, together with Horace Albright, the superintendent of Yellowstone that got together and came up with the idea that maybe the mountain range needed to be protected as a national park, and that was the first iteration of the park. And then over the last 100 years, it’s gone through several different changes, expansions as together, the community has decided that additional protections were needed and people stepped forward. Most notably, of course, the Rockefellers. But then actually hundreds of other people who have participated in helping to preserve and conserve these lands. And yes, there are the lands that are within the national park, but also we exist as part of a larger ecosystem. You know, I mean, if you care about elk, if you care about pronghorn and moose and grizzly bears and being able to see those on the landscape, it is this larger, complex jurisdiction, complex set of jurisdictions mixed together with private property that allows this intact ecosystem to function. And that is internationally significant in terms of the work that continues to go on here to ensure the preservation of this place.
KHOL: In terms of the overlapping jurisdictions that you just mentioned, I wonder how the parks, you know, within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem so including, you know, Yellowstone National Park, there’s been a lot of kind of back and forth and changing status and requests of certain wildlife management in the past several months and years. We just saw gray wolves, for example, get protected through much of the rest of the country again, but not within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. There are pending requests from Montana and Wyoming to delist grizzly bears from federal protections. Where do the parks come into that? You know, what are your relationships like with the state?
JENKINS: You know, actually, let me come at that from a little bit of a different angle, if you don’t mind, which is like part of it is, I think, what most people don’t realize is national parks and protected areas, it’s a giant experiment. You know, I mean, it was not that long ago that as part of the experiment, what we thought was important is to remove all predators. What was thought as part of that experiment was to feed bears at garbage dumps. Right? What was thought as part of that experiment was to suppress all wildfires or to introduce non-native species onto the landscape. Right? So, we are still engaged in this experiment. And how the experiment has evolved over the last several decades has been an emphasis in terms of restoring native species on the landscape and actually in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, actually, with a tremendous degree of success. I mean, grizzly bear populations have greatly increased both in numbers and in geographic extent. You know, we joke a bit that 10-15 years ago when people came to Grand Teton and said, ‘Hey, we want to see a grizzly bear,’ what the park rangers did was say, ‘Drive through the south entrance of Yellowstone and head north, and you’ll be able to see them up there.’ Right? Now we are living with grizzly bears on a daily basis here. Similar with wolves.
We in the National Park Service, we exist in a legal framework. We exist in a framework where the federal government has certain laws and regulations that we are charged with managing and the states are charged with managing. And we have a pretty collaborative relationship with Wyoming Game and Fish and the state on mutual conservation. And it has been that productive relationship that has allowed actually the grizzly bear population to recover, that has allowed the wolf population to recover and that we continue to work on the recovery and the maintenance of other populations. Yes, there are policy disagreements. Yes, there are disagreements, you know, amongst different stakeholders in terms of the specifics of how populations should be managed. I also think that we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that it’s through the collaboration that, you know, we now live with grizzly bears in Jackson Hole. You know, we now live with wolves in Jackson Hole. That’s an enormous conservation success story that we should all celebrate.
KHOL: Thank you for sharing that. It is amazing to think about this as a big, ongoing experiment that’s actually not too old in the grand scheme of things. Okay, getting back to sort of human recreation in the park, one thing I’ve heard from people in the park service is that, ‘It’s not our job to tell people how to recreate on their public lands.’ But people can also get themselves into dangerous situations on public lands. You know, sadly, we just had a death in the park on Sunday. This 27-year-old Jackson man died while skiing the Apocalypse Couloir. So, people have been really getting after it we know during this long high pressure, unusually long high pressure period, I should say. And I wonder, you know, how you kind of grapple with the park’s role in terms of people’s backcountry recreation?
JENKINS: You know, part of the reason that the park is here is for people to be able to seek inspiration in whatever ways they find it [and] that’s consistent with preservation of the resources, right? And there is a long established, well before the National Park Service, [history] of people challenging themselves emotionally, mentally, physically through their interactions with the environment and with the ecosystem. And that’s, you know, that is part of the purpose of national parks, provided that when that’s done, it’s done in a way that does not harm the resource [and] does not harm other people. You know, our hearts certainly goes out to Rad’s family and friends, right? I know that he was connected in this community in ways that I don’t fully appreciate, but that, you know, but that is a tragedy. I think also we do ask people, though, to recreate responsibly, and part of that is really making choices that don’t put other people at risk, right? And we do find ourselves in the situation that when people get into trouble, we work really closely with Teton County Search and Rescue as well as our own rangers, where when we can we go out and try to, you know, help people when they are in distress.
You know, the reality is, too, that for the high-profile accidents that happen, like this week, what we also faced this last year is that we had three over 300 medical calls in the park. The vast majority of those were actually people within a mile or two of the trailhead who were suffering from heat exhaustion or from simple twists and falls. People who [are] far less skilled and maybe far less prepared for even taking a short walk in the park. And I think that that’s actually where we are concentrating most of our efforts. We appreciate the high-skilled, highly-talented folks who are feeding their soul through, you know, challenging skiing and mountaineering terrain. I think where we are more focused is on more of the average tourist who may be here and don’t realize they’re at 6,500 feet and the intensity of the sun. And [we’re focused on] how they can have a safe visit without having to call one of the park medics.
KHOL: Well, talking about tourism, I wanted to ask you about how you’re looking forward to next summer. We’re seeing more and more parks, including Grand Teton, move to more online reservations for things like campgrounds. You know, I just wonder how the park is gearing up for what is sure to be another busy peak summer tourism season?
JENKINS: Right, it’s really kind of funny. We’re sitting here in the middle of February, and we actually have–every year we hire about 200 summer employees and we are, you know, our supervisors are smack in the middle right now of making job offers for the summer. Actually, we had a senior leadership team conversation this morning and we were talking about what is our spring opening looking like? We start plowing the park road on the 13th of March. And, you know, how do we start opening up our seasonal housing later on in April? And what’s our safety training look like in early May? So, we are actually feeling the gravitational pull towards the summer season and getting ready for that. I think, you know, after two years of the pandemic we’re not quite sure what to expect this summer. I think we are expecting that we’re going to continue to see high levels of visitation. I mean, you know, people are enjoying their public lands, and I think that there are many communities that maybe previously had not felt welcome on public lands that in the last several decades we’ve been inviting them to come. And in the last several years, they’ve been testing whether or not that invitation is sincere. And I think we’re optimistic that we’re going to continue to see folks who may be new to public lands coming and visiting.
Having said all of that, yeah, you know, the ecosystem is changing. Just as grizzly bears have expanded in their range, how people are visiting, the numbers of people that are visiting, what they are doing [is also changing]. One of the things that we’ve started to, I think, just ourselves have realized that we need to talk about in terms of visitation [is that] it’s not like a thermometer, where it’s very easy to be focused on just what’s the number? Is the number going up or is it plateaued? It’s more like a balloon because as visitation increases, it occupies space in a really different way. Right? Not just the space in terms of where people are parking, but it’s also we have more trash to pick up. We have human waste to deal with. We have more bathrooms to clean. We have more people who are writing us emails and asking for information. There’s a greater demand for us being able to provide information via social media and electronically. And so, the increasing visitation is putting pressure on us in terms of being able to meet that three dimensional need in really, really different ways.
We’re trying to respond. The park actually has a long track record of actively managing visitation in the park, right? For virtually every overnight accommodation, whether you’re staying at the lodge or you’re staying at the campground, you need to get a reservation. Backcountry permits also-similarly, you can get most of those in advance, as well as first come, first serve. The Rockefeller Reserve, we manage to a carrying capacity that was set and that carrying capacity is tied to the size of the parking lot. Similarly, the experience at String Lake, we have a carrying capacity for that area that is also tied to the parking lot, and we actively manage those two places. There are other places in the park, like the Lupine [Meadows] Trailhead, the Jenny Lake Trailhead, where at least not yet, we’ve not taken steps to actively manage that. We’re, you know, we’re evaluating what the quality of the experience is. We’re evaluating what the impact of the resources are. We’ve been doing a variety of studies that we launched last summer. We’re going to continue to be gathering data this year. And frankly, where we are right now is we’re just trying to bring clarity to: Do we have problems? Exactly what is the problem? And then working with the community, is there agreement that that is a problem that needs to be solved? We’re really focused on that right now before we start talking about what solutions might be.
KHOL: I’m glad you mentioned that study. I do remember talking to park officials last year when that data was starting to be collected and doing trail counts and stuff like that. I believe the goal was to kind of better understand this changing nature of the park visitor? Do you have any early results from that or takeaways or are you still like in data collection mode?
JENKINS: It’s actually in analysis mode. So, we actually had a number of different studies going on. One is, for the first time, the park did a park-wide mobility study where what we’re trying to do is understand where people are coming from. And I mean, where are people coming from a large geographic region. Where do they come from? How do they arrive at the park? How long do they spend at different places? Where do they go as a second, third fourth place? You know, really how do people move about the park? We’re also doing more detailed studies at the Colter Bay loop and Taggart [Lake] trailheads. We’re really trying to dig in on social science, of what the quality of the experience that people were having and how people were reacting to the numbers of other visitors around. This coming summer, we’re actually going to be doing a socioeconomic study where we’re going to be looking at the socioeconomic demographics of visitors, including how much they spend in the area, [and] on what, what communities that they are coming from, what communities are not coming to visit the park. So, we’re collecting a lot of data. And then part of what is going to need to happen here is that we’re going to need to be able to extract knowledge from that data. And we look forward to being able to share the results of the studies later this spring and early summer with the community and then engaging in conversations with folks and for us all to be able to learn more together.
KHOL: Great. Well, we will be really excited to see the results of those studies. Is there anything else that you’d like to share today with KHOL listeners? Anything else you’d like the community to know?
JENKINS: I think one thing I would like to touch on is, you know, as we roll into spring, into April and May, we are going to start having grizzly bears emerge from their dens. And as I said earlier, right, we now live in a time where grizzly bears are not transient. It’s not on their way through someplace else, but they actually live here in Jackson Hole and they are trying to figure out how to make their living. And if we want to continue to coexist with wildlife in the community here, whether it’s grizzly bears or moose or elk or others, I think we need to continue to learn how we need to modify our behaviors in order to be able to coexist. And I think as we head toward summer and as we head towards the animals starting to become more active and starting to move around Jackson Hole, [I’m] just really, really looking forward to working with the county, working with nonprofit organizations, with the forest service, with Wyoming Game and Fish to continue to explore the steps that we can take together to be stewards of this magical place so that we can all continue to enjoy the benefits of the wildlife being here.
KHOL: Well, thank you again, Superintendent Jenkins, for joining us today on KHOL. We really appreciate it.
JENKINS: Oh, thanks for the opportunity to be here and we appreciate everybody tuning in.