Global conservation, COVID response defined Wallace’s Interior stint with Trump administration

Photo by Bradly J. Boner, Jackson Hole News&Guide. Rob Wallace enjoys Jackson Lake in September 2019, shortly after he was confirmed as the Assistant Secretary of Fish, Wildlife and Parks at the U.S. Department of Interior. The Jackson Hole resident’s time with Interior came to a close with the change in presidential administrations.

JACKSON — Rob Wallace’s first official move in the inner circle of decision-making at the U.S. Department of the Interior was to help Mongolia protect a critically endangered species of antelope called a saiga.

His last call was approving the extradition of a Chinese nationalist from Malaysia who had been hiring college students to smuggle turtles out of the United States to Asia. 

Kang Juntao, 24, of Hangzhou City, China, was charged in February 2019 with financing a nationwide ring to smuggle some 1,500 turtles worth $2.25 million, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The department described the turtles, which included five protected species, as inhumanely bound with duct tape and placed in socks to avoid detection by customs authorities.

“Those are the first and last consequential decisions I made,” Wallace said.

The News&Guide interviewed the Teton Village resident in late February about his time in the top post.

His job overseeing the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service came to a close with the inauguration of a new president. His year and a half working for the federal government started in June 2019 when he was confirmed unanimously as the next U.S. Department of Interior’s assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks — the first Senate-confirmed person in that job in eight years. 

Throughout his time as a Trump Administration appointee, he worked under former Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.

“I thought personally that working under David was a real plus,” Wallace said. “He’s one of the smartest people I’ve been around, and he really knew the Department of Interior, and how it functioned.”

Atop the Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service, Wallace was in charge of about 40 percent of Interior. Collectively, the two agencies have a $7 billion annual budget and about 27,000 employees spread across 568 wildlife refuges and 423 national park units.

“It was a pretty consequential organization to try to get my arms around,” Wallace said.

From the get go, the appointment had him traveling around the country and world. He went to Geneva to represent the United States at the United Nations’ latest Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Trips were logged to Kaktovik, Alaska along the North Slope to meet with community leaders about the impacts of polar bear tourism, and he went hunting for invasive pythons in Everglades National Park with a veteran’s group called the Swamp Apes. A stop was made at the Mexican border to learn how additions to the fence system were impeding migratory routes.

“The first part of my time was a lot of traveling, but then about March 1 of last year the pandemic hit,” Wallace said. “We had to literally reimagine how parks are going to function in that climate.”

The National Park Service largely turned pandemic decision-making over to individual parks, instructing them to coordinate with states about opening plans and virus-related restrictions. The result was piecemeal regulations across the federal agency — and even within some parks, like Yellowstone, that spill across state lines.

“I think it was the right call to ask the superintendents to stay close to the governors in the way they were opening,” Wallace said. “It was a much more organized way to do it. Had Yellowstone unilaterally opened without coordination with Wyoming, Montana or Idaho, I don’t think that would have been a very good outcome.”

Wallace’s proudest achievement in his time as assistant secretary was helping shepherd the Great American Outdoors Act through Congress. That landmark law requires fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Act, effectively creating a $900 million annual fund for land acquisition and to support parks and open spaces. It also siphons $1.9 billion annually for five years from energy royalties to help address a more than $14 billion backlog of deferred maintenance saddling the Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management.

“It’s already starting to benefit the parks here, and it’s just getting started,” Wallace said. “There’s a water project in Colter Bay and a new roof in Moose. The Lewis River bridge is being replaced in Yellowstone.”

Wallace’s advice for his successor is to be ready for the unexpected. He dealt with a hurricane that knocked out North Carolina’s Hatteras Island, wildfires scorching Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula and the dive boat that blew up off the coast of California near the Channel Islands.

“You never knew what was going to happen when you walked in the office,” he said.

Wallace, who’s in his mid-70s, purposely did not arrange for new work prior to his departure. His professional background, which included a stint as a seasonal Grand Teton National Park ranger, includes working as chief of staff to Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer and directing government relations for the energy division of General Electric.

“It’s just a joy being home,” Wallace said. “I’m headed out skiing in just a few minutes.”