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Lee Whittlesey

Lee Whittlesey Reflects on Long Yellowstone Career

During a nearly 50-year career at Yellowstone National ParkLee Whittlesey drew inspiration from the act of Congress establishing the National Park Service: “… to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Those words from The Organic Act of 1916 inspired Whittlesey throughout his nearly 50-year career—minus a few years here and there in the “real world”—in various positions in Yellowstone, both with the NPS and the private sector.

Whittlesey, 68, retired in early May, relocating near Livingston, Montana, 50 miles from Yellowstone’s northern entrance. He reflected recently on his time in Yellowstone, beginning with his first job, at 18 years old, riding the back of an NPS garbage truck from a home base at West Thumb.

He recalls the position fondly.

“I thought it was the greatest job I’d had at the time,” he said.

He lucked into the position—partly with the help of his father, who had held federal positions and showed him how to apply—by showing up, along with some friends from his home in Oklahoma, at the NPS personnel office. The personnel staffer said he could only hire people who had submitted their application by Jan. 15. Whittlesey said he had done so, and the staffer offered him the job.

“’Mr. Whittlesey, I am authorized to hire you,’” he recalled. “I’ll never forget his words.”

Besides the pretty good pay and relatively easy work, he enjoyed being outside in the Park every day as well as getting time to chat with tourists. His love of backpacking and hiking began then, and his habit of reading voraciously about Yellowstone. He came back a second summer, during his college years, but for his third season, he wanted to work at Old Faithful where the action—and the girls—were, according to some of his buddies who had gotten hired on with the private concession companies.

He wanted a job that paid at least as well as his NPS job and had learned the concession-company bus drivers made pretty good money. He didn’t have enough experience to be a bus driver, but he said the Transportation Department managers were interested in hiring him because of his previous experience in the Park. He was hired as a non-driving “commentator,” a position better known today as a step-on tour guide.

Whittlesey graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in radio and TV communications. He decided to work in his chosen field, holding jobs at radio and tv stations. But after a few years, he wanted to go back to Yellowstone. Now married, he and his wife headed to Yellowstone. He was hired as a bus driver. A few years later, during the winter of 1979-80 he began driving the Bombardier snowcoaches, the winter over-the-snow transportation.

“At that moment, I knew I was a lifer,” he recalled.

Later, he was offered the position, following the retirement career of his mentor, Gerald “Gerry” Pesman, of Commentary Trainer, overseeing the information provided to and training of bus drivers and tour guides. Pesman had driven tour buses in the 1920s, Whittlesey said, then had a career, following college, with the agency that was to become NASA.

“He sent Neil Armstrong to the moon as a NASA engineer,” Whittlesey recalled.

The concession company, now known as Xanterra Parks and Resorts, eliminated the commentary trainer position in 1982. (But later reinstated it, and which is currently held by another Yellowstone history aficionado—mentored by Whittlesey—Leslie Quinn.)

“I was heartbroken,” Whittlesey recalled.

So he decided to go to ranger school and earn his law-enforcement commission, attending a Seasonal Law Enforcement Training Program in North Carolina. He was immediately hired for the summer season of 1983 as a ranger.

Then he decided to go to law school. He had applied, almost on a whim, and been accepted at the University of Oklahoma.

“Even if you don’t want to be a lawyer, it’s a great education,” he said.

The training contributed to his research abilities and comprehension of property law as well as teaching him to write short, concise sentences.

He finished his law degree and was hired on as a law enforcement ranger, based in West Yellowstone, responsible for patrolling the stretch of park land traversed by U.S. Hwy. 191 between West and Big Sky—in the summer of 1988.

“I took my last test on June 16, and I was on a flight to West Yellowstone June 17—and you know what happened that summer,” he said.

He was on duty while watching the first fire of that historic season—the Fan Fire, a lightning strike that burned near the Fawn Pass area.

“I put out the road sign that said, ‘Known Fire, Do Not Report.’”

That fall, his first book, Yellowstone Place Names, came out, an edited version of his comprehensive history of nearly every place name associated with the park. Other works followed, including his popular—if a little morbid—big seller, Death in Yellowstone, in 1995.

Then he worked a few years as an interpretive ranger at Mammoth Hot Springs. In 1992, then-Park employee (and renowned author) Paul Schullery told Whittlesey he wanted to “hire” his files for a big project—wolf reintroduction.

“They’d been talking about that since 1978,” Whittlesey recalled. “We found 36 historical sightings references of wolves in the park between 1796 and 1881.”

Schullery was charged with producing a wildlife inventory. The document was important in the 1995 reintroduction of the wolf.

He got Whittlesey hired on as a technical writer, and later, Whittlesey was hired by then-historian Tom Tankersleigh to be the assistant historian. In 2000, Tankersleigh transferred to another position within the park, and Whittlesey, a natural to replace him, had to apply like any other government employee for the position. Despite never practicing as a lawyer—besides clerking briefly for a district court judge in Colorado—Whittlesey’s law degree was an asset because the degree shoots candidates to the top of any federal hiring list, even scoring more points than a Ph.D., he said.

Whittlesey was the park’s fourth historian. The first was the venerable Aubrey Haines, author of the authoritative two-volume The Yellowstone Story. The second stayed a very short time, then there was Tankersleigh, then Whittlesey.

Thinking about his career, he said what he is most proud of a forthcoming NPS title on which he is the lead author, that began as the wildlife inventory for the wolf project, “The History of Mammals in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, 1796-1881, Volume One: A Cross-Disciplinary analysis of thousands of historical observations.”

Whittlesey chose to retire in order to work on some of his own projects and to explore Montana back roads. But he also chose to leave because he is saddened by the politicalization, not to mention the outright denial of climate change, by federal officials, including those ostensibly in charge of protecting the environment.

“I was aghast that some of the chicanery had seeped into the Park Service because climate change is part of their mandate. It figures into their protective mission,” he said.

He cited again the Organic Act of 1916, which always informed his work: “…to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Image courtesy Lee Whittlesey.

This story originally appeared in the weekly Yellowstone Insider newsletter. Are you a subscriber? If not, consider signing up — it’s free and filled with news about America’s First National Park. Subscribe here!

About Liz Kearney

Liz Kearney is a former Yellowstone tour guide and snowcoach driver. She lives in Livingston, Montana, where she covers the park and other news for the daily newspaper, the Livingston Enterprise.

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