JACKSON — A Jackson Hole man nominated for a high federal job overseeing national parks and wildlife refuges is bucking the Trump administration approach of dismissing climate change and silencing its science.
Testifying before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Teton Village resident Rob Wallace said he believes that the planet is warming and that climate change poses challenges to flora and fauna that must be addressed on federal lands. He broached the topic while fielding questions from Sen. Tom Carper, of Delaware, the top Democrat on the committee, during his nomination hearing Tuesday morning. The Trump administration has tapped Wallace to serve as the next assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks at the Interior Department.
“Senator, I believe in the importance of climate science,” Wallace testified, “and the independence of science.”
In planning to make ecosystems more resilient to a warming world, Wallace said he would “follow the law” and “follow the science.”
“What are your professionals telling you about how to solve these problems? And it’s not just the 50,000-foot [view of] science; it’s the on-the-ground science by managers. What are they telling you to do about the problem?”
Wallace’s remarks are noteworthy since he’s an appointee of a presidential administration that has mocked climate change, scrubbed science from federal agency websites and pulled the United States from an international accord meant to avert ecological and economic changes to the planet.
If confirmed Wallace would answer to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and oversee the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Because they tend to sit in high-elevation, arid or Arctic environments, national parks are expected to be disproportionately affected by climate change, recent research has found.
Wallace had another confirmation hearing Wednesday before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. His nomination must also be approved by the U.S. Senate as a whole, a body that has not signed off on an assistant secretary in over eight years.
Sen. John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican who chairs the environment committee, championed Wallace’s nomination, remarking that he’s known him for 35 years.
“Without question, Rob is the right person for this job,” Barrasso said. “Throughout his long and distinguished career Rob has struck the proper balance between wildlife conservation, habitat management and the use of our public lands.”
Introducing himself, Wallace described how he started his career as a Grand Teton National Park seasonal climbing ranger who spent some falls working at an elk hunting camp on the Bridger-Teton National Forest.
“But it wasn’t the daily adventures that had the most profound effect on me,” Wallace said. “It was the political issues that swirled around every aspect of my job.”
He was taken by debates about how to best manage a small and threatened population of grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park and conversations in the Tetons about fire management, search and rescue, and visitor use. Wallace departed National Park Service employment to volunteer on Malcolm Wallop’s 1972 Senate campaign, and when the Republican rancher won he suddenly had a “front-row seat to some of the most consequential energy, wildlife, and natural resource issues in a generation.”
He listed issues he worked on while employed on Senate committees, including the one he testified before: Alaska lands legislation, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the controversy over protecting imperiled spotted owls in the Pacific Northwest’s big timber country.
“Later, as chief of staff to the governor of Wyoming, I was in the middle of wolf reintroduction to Yellowstone,” Wallace said. “I ended my time in Washington working for GE, where my primary responsibility was leading a policy team that focused on the deployment of clean energy technologies in the United States and around the world.”
Wallace touched several times on invasive species and the threats they pose to native wildlife in national parks and refuges. Going back and forth with Sen. Mike Braun, an Indiana Republican, Wallace said that exotic pythons in Everglades National Park could wipe some species of songbirds off the planet and that the introduction of lake trout to Yellowstone Lake had a profound ecological effect that has rippled all the way to grizzly bears.
“The federal agencies and state agencies need to be observant to identify potential risks,” Wallace said. “Is it coming? What can you do to prevent it? If it’s here, how do you stabilize it, and what do you do to reverse it?”
When asked his views on specific issues such as managing prairie potholes in the Great Plains, dealing with piscivorous sea otters in southeast Alaska and ensuring public access at Massachusetts’ Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, Wallace repeatedly committed to learning more without staking a position.
Asked whether he’d ensure that small but popular wildlife refuges in places like Delaware are adequately staffed, he said he’d like to make a visit and learn more.
“We need motivated men and women in the National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service that get up every day and whistle when they go to work,” Wallace said. “There will be 30,000 people under the assistant secretary of fish, wildlife and parks.
“They’re going to be an important priority to me in terms of their training and their morale.”