A Teton Village resident tapped to oversee the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would step into a post that a U.S. Senate-confirmed appointee hasn’t held in eight years.
Although word of Rob Wallace’s nomination as the U.S. Department of Interior’s next Assistant Secretary of Fish Wildlife and Parks broke two weeks ago, it wasn’t until Monday that President Donald Trump advanced his pick to the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
The nomination document posted to Congress.gov lists Thomas Strickland, who resigned, as the person Wallace would replace. Strickland, an attorney, was President Barack Obama’s Senate-confirmed pick for the post in 2009. He left two years later to take a job at the private law firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr.
Ever since, Interior’s Assistant Secretary of Fish Wildlife and Parks has been staffed by acting or interim officials.
The nearly decade-long vacancy “is not that unusual,” at least historically, said Jeff Ruch, who until recently directed the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility watchdog group. He could think of one high-ranking Interior position that sat unfilled by a Senate-confirmed person for just as long: the Bureau of Land Management director during the Clinton administration.
“Interior overall has more vacant spots than confirmed spots,” Ruch said. “And a lot of the Interior agencies have politically appointed directors.”
If confirmed, in fact, Wallace would oversee two agencies that have lacked Senate-confirmed leadership dating to when Trump took office. Dan Smith, a deputy director who’s “exercising the authority of director,” now leads the National Park Service. Fish and Wildlife, meanwhile, is under the guidance of Margaret Everson, a principal deputy director who’s also “exercising the authority of director.”
The requirement that the Senate accept or reject executive and judicial branch appointments is in the United States Constitution.
“This provision, like many others in the Constitution, was born of compromise,” reads Senate.gov. “In debating the issue, the framers addressed concerns that entrusting the appointment power exclusively to the president would encourage monarchical tendencies.”
Wallace has not responded to the News&Guide’s requests for an interview. The U.S. Department of Interior’s press office failed to return a phone call.
Wallace potentially has the bipartisan support he would need to win Senate support. He started his career as a seasonal Grand Teton National Park climbing ranger, and later went on to lobby for the energy division of General Electric. Most recently he presided over the Upper Green River Conservancy, which works to protect core sage grouse habitat in the Upper Green. In the intervening years Wallace held jobs that included chief of staff for former Wyoming Sen. Malcolm Wallop and former Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer, and assistant director for congressional and legislative affairs at the Park Service under Interior Secretary Donald Hodel.
Wallace served on the boards of Teton Science Schools, the Jackson Hole Historical Society, the Jackson Hole Land Trust and the University of Wyoming’s School of Energy Resources, according to a bio posted by the Grand Teton National Park Foundation, where he is a board member.
People who know him like him
“Rob would be great,” said Spring Gulch resident Joan Anzelmo, a retired National Park Service employee. “If he gets confirmed by the Senate, that would be a good thing. He has so much depth in the issues of this ecosystem, he knows the agencies’ missions and he’s been an employee of the National Park Service.”
U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and Wyoming Sens. John Barrasso and Mike Enzi have also spoken glowingly about Wallace’s nomination.
Moose resident John Turner, a director of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under George H. W. Bush, said he’s known and worked with Wallace for 40 years. The two have recently corresponded about issues with Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency Wallace is less familiar with. Turner was also enthusiastic about Trump’s choice.
“Rob would be outstanding,” Turner told the News&Guide. “He’s got a long history in conservation. He’s wise in political circles. He’s experienced in the Washington arena. It’ll be good for Wyoming and Teton County.”
During his Fish and Wildlife directorship Turner worked under Connie Harriman, Interior’s former Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. Turner mostly corresponded directly with the Interior Secretary at the time, Manuel Lujan. The role the assistant secretary plays depends on who is in charge, he said.
Likely to have limited power
At least in PEER’s view, Interior’s Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks has been an inconsequential position in recent years.
“It’s certainly not all that important of a position compared to say, the director of the Park Service or Fish and Wildlife Service,” said Peter Jenkins, senior legal counsel for the advocacy group. “You could say that, because it’s been basically shuttled around to a bunch of political appointees who have not been confirmed by the Senate.”
Ruch, who was Jenkins’ old boss at PEER, said that an assistant secretary being confirmed after such a long vacancy would be a good thing.
“We think it’s important that you have somebody that’s accountable and who has been reviewed by the Senate, but in terms of the reality a lot of it depends on the administration,” Ruch said. “I can’t say that, individually, he’d make that much of a difference. In the Trump administration you don’t get the impression that an appointee is given a lot of leeway to exercise their own judgment.”