Rob Wallace’s first stint in Jackson Hole came as a GS-4 Grand Teton National Park seasonal ranger, and it was an exciting era to be a fledgling federal employee working in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Arriving in the valley in 1971, he was party to the debate about whether to wean bears off garbage in neighboring Yellowstone National Park. A debate about letting wildfire play its natural role on the fire-adapted landscape was heating up. There were more forgotten controversies he looks back on, like when the National Park Service switched from blazing trees to mark primitive trails to using orange triangles.
“Climbing the Grand, you had to be interviewed by a climbing ranger for your skills,” Wallace said Monday afternoon from the bench seat of a Signal Mountain Lodge runabout rental boat. “It was a different way of doing business.”
“Some of the issues haven’t changed,” he said. “Going back to the days when I was a seasonal, every year it was, ‘We don’t have enough money, and we don’t have enough manpower to start the season.’”
Forty-eight years later, the 72-year-old’s interest in the issues and appreciation for the place has not sagged. That’s important, because now Wallace is a high-ranking official at the U.S. Department of the Interior, where he works as the go-between for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Park Service directors and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. In the interim, he climbed high professionally, earning jobs like chief of staff to Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer and director of government relations for the energy division of General Electric.
The new job — officially, Interior’s “assistant secretary of fish, wildlife and parks” — was somewhat unexpected, he said. It’s pulled him away from the valley he moved his family to in 2014, though he intends to return every other week to be with his wife and daughters.
“My goal was always to get back here with the family,” Wallace said.
Wallace’s first five weeks on the job have been a whirlwind. Early on, he traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, for the United Nations’ latest Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Last week he got back from Alaska, where he learned about park and refuge issues on the Great Frontier and rendezvoused with recently departed National Elk Refuge Manager Brian Glaspell.
Wallace took a few hours out of his Labor Day to meet the News&Guide for a choppy Jackson Lake motorboat ride to the cove east of Hermitage Point, where he chatted in calmer waters. Some topics of discussion — like Grand Teton National Park’s long-delayed acquisition of a 640-acre Wyoming inholding and sage grouse politics — were off-limits because of recusal agreements Wallace hashed out with the U.S. Office of Government Ethics. Wallace’s former business dealt with sage grouse conservation, and he recently sat on the board of the Grand Teton National Park Foundation.
This interview has been lightly edited, condensed and reorganized for readability and space.
Q: One of the first big National Park Service issues to make headlines under your tenure has been Secretary Bernhardt’s policy directive about allowing e-bikes in national parks. Was that your idea?
A: It was something they were already working on, but it’s my responsibility now to follow through with the initiative. The thing that I think has been misunderstood is that there’s no e-bike policy yet. The presumption is, if you allow bicycles or mountain bikes then e-bikes ought to have that same privilege — but within that parameter, superintendents can say it may not make sense for me to do it here. They’re going to have discretion.
Q: Another big issue under your purview has been the proposal to change the Endangered Species Act rulemaking process. Is that an environmental law that needs fixing?
A: It’s been around since 1973, and that’s a long time. There’s been a lot of big successes, but there’s also been the perception that it’s like a maze. Once you get a species listed, you can’t figure out how to get out of the box. The argument is that if you want to keep public confidence in the act, you want transparency. What are the standards you use to determine if a species is threatened or endangered? And what are the standards you’re going to use to say it’s recovered? Make that peer-reviewable and make it transparent.
Q: If Colorado’s congressional delegation came and said, "We want a wolf reintroduction," would Rob Wallace’s Fish and Wildlife Service be on board for that?
A: I don’t know that yet. We’d ask that whatever their justification is, that it be science-driven. That’s not a bad standard for doing anything in this space.
Q: What’s your personal view about restoring native species like wolves that were extirpated from their historic range? Is that something that we should aspire to as a society?
A: I think the case in Yellowstone is proving that wolves have been a constructive add to the ecosystem. The trouble is when they get out of parks and they mix with other users. How do you accommodate and respect it all?
Q: Up in Yellowstone, Cam Sholly has said the crowding problem has been overblown and there’s no need for a visitation cap. Do you share the view that tourism to the national parks hasn’t run amuck?
A: I can’t speak for Cam, but I’ve been around the question of visitation to Yellowstone for a long time, and it’s a very difficult issue to put on the table and get consensus in the gateway communities about.
Q: How do you feel about the changes you’ve seen here in your hometown park? I’m sure there are dramatic differences.
A: I’ve been looking at this view, and I can’t tell it’s changed an iota. It’s still a magical place.
Q: Does the National Park Service need more funding?
A: I’ve got a budget I have to work under, and my job is to make sure it’s adequate enough for people to do the jobs they need to do. It’s a long ongoing negotiation, and we’re just getting started.
Q: Are you going to push for more money?
A: I’m going to push for a budget that works for our agencies.
Q: What are your people on the front lines of the agencies saying? They need more money?
A: [Laughs] That’s a question you knew the answer to before you asked it.
Q: David Vela’s nomination to be the next Park Service director came and went with the new Congress. Now he’s in another role. What happened? Would you like to see a permanent Senate-confirmed director soon?
A: David’s right now in a role of acting deputy director of operations, and he’s doing a terrific job.
Q: Is he still the presumptive nominee?
A: I think we’re going to be clearing that up pretty soon.
Q: Can you give me a preview of what’s to come?
A: [Laughs] Is your tape recorder running?
Q: So what does Interior’s assistant secretary of fish, wildlife and parks actually do?
A: The directors of both agencies report directly to me, and I have a team that is there to help them do their jobs. There’s a total of a little over 30,000 people between the Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service, and a budget of a little less than $6 billion.
Q: You said in your Senate confirmation hearing that you believe in the importance of climate change and the independence of science. Are more forceful policies needed to reduce the greenhouse gas contributions of the national parks and wildlife refuges? Are more resources and funding needed to study the effects of climate change on these lands?
A: I look at the climate debate in two buckets. One is the basic science: the National Science Foundation science, the U.N. science, the macro-science, for lack of a better term. But that’s not science that managers need in refuges and parks. They need applied science. What are they seeing in their parks? Are things changing? How can we use science to solve problems that we see developing? And the issue with that is each one of the 1,000 units in the Fish and Wildlife and National Park service has a different stress point. If you’re up in Alaska it’s ice melt in the Beaufort Sea. In Kenai they’re having the hottest climate they’ve ever seen. It’s usually raining right now, and they have raging wildfires. If you are the governor of Louisiana, maybe another 6 inches of tide means you’re going to be evacuating communities. What’s the applied science telling you about how to manage and mitigate all of those issues?