The Roundup: A Conversation With Former U.S. Assistant Interior Secretary Rob Wallace

This week’s guest is Rob Wallace, who as the Assistant Secretary for the Interior under the Trump Administration, oversaw both the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Park Service.

WC
Wendy Corr

April 06, 202426 min read

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Wendy Corr:

Well, hey there, folks, and welcome to The Roundup. We are a podcast featuring voices, opinions and perspectives from interesting people in the Cowboy State. I always say “interesting” because our editor, Jimmy Orr says, “Is your story interesting? But really, is it interesting?”

Let me tell you what, not only is Rob Wallace interesting, he knows Jimmy Orr - and they've got stories. So we won't go into too much of that today. But Rob Wallace, you are Wyoming born, Wyoming raised, but you and your career took off to Washington, DC - and the things that happened under your supervision there as the Assistant Secretary for the Interior for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, really were things that we all kind of watched, and watched happen, and really did affect us here in Wyoming. 

But Rob, I want to start off by saying “Hello,” and thank you for being here with us on The Roundup! Good morning.

Rob Wallace:

Well, good morning, Wendy. It's great to be here. And I think you and I should do a Netflix series on Jimmy Orr, sometime down the road.

Wendy Corr:

Oh, boy, Jimmy's gonna be really thrilled to hear that. (laughing) Yeah, we'll just wait and see what happens there.

Rob Wallace:

He’ll be hiring a lawyer.

Wendy Corr:

Yeah, he might. He might, especially with the stories you have to tell - because you, well let's start off with, here, Rob, you grew up in Wyoming. You started off in Evanston. Tell us about growing up in Wyoming from your perspective and your path.

Rob Wallace:

You know, it was a marvelous experience. It's become even more special looking back over the years. I mean, at the time, I thought everything cool that was happening was in Salt Lake City. You know, all we had in Evanston were safe neighborhoods, loving parents, great friends, unlimited places to go play. But you know, Salt Lake had Lagoon and the Beach Boys and fast cars. And it took leaving for college and coming back to realize just what an incredibly fortunate experience that was.

Wendy Corr:

You know, that is growing up Wyoming. Those are things that we do often take for granted. And then, what got you then, out of Evanston and out of Wyoming, and to the really interesting career that you had? Tell us about your career path that ended up then in Washington DC.

Rob Wallace:

One of my favorite sayings is, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. And I'm clearly in that column. I left Evanston to attend the University of Texas at Austin, with great dreams of becoming a petroleum engineer, and working in South America and the Middle East and discovering oil and seeing the world. And although I did get a degree in engineering from Texas, before I found that dream job I, on a lark, applied to be a park ranger in Grand Teton National Park. And I got the job.

Wendy Corr:

That's so fun. That does change the trajectory of your life, wouldn't it?

Rob Wallace:

It's a little bit different than Saudi Arabia, for sure, as a career. But I just, I fell in love with the park service and the parks and what they stood for. And the people that I worked with back then, we all agree that we peaked too early in life. You know, I was making about $1,000 a year, I had a savings account, paid to be outside all day long. And what happened? 

Wendy Corr:

What did happen? What did happen, Rob?

Rob Wallace:

Well, what did happen, I was on my way, during one of my five years with the Park Service, to meet up with friends in Florida. We were going to go sailing for a couple of weeks. I happened, literally at the moment I was driving through Cheyenne, passing the Hitching Post, listening to the local radio station. I heard of a man named Malcolm Wallop, who was a state senator from Sheridan at the time, announcing he was going to run for the United States Senate. And I thought, “I wonder what that's about.” So I pulled into the parking lot, listened to his speech, introduced myself afterwards, and said, “Hey, I live up in Teton County, can I maybe hand out brochures for you in the fall, in your campaign?” And he looked at me and said, “Well, what are you doing now? I don't have any staff.”

Wendy Corr:

Oh, my! So you got a job. 

Rob Wallace:

So I got a job on the campaign. It was a big upset when he defeated the incumbent senator, a man by the name of Gale McGee. And he said, “Alright, now come to Washington.” 

So that's how I got from Evanston to Jackson to DC, and it's been a wild ride ever since.

Wendy Corr:

So what did you do then? What was your day to day job working for Senator Wallop?

Rob Wallace:

Well, I started out like all rookies, kind of in the mailroom, answering letters - and that was back before there was even self correcting typewriter ribbons, you just had to mail the letters before you could go home or go have a beer with your friends. 

So I started out as a correspondent, and then from there evolved to a legislative assistant, specializing in - finally - energy policy, and some natural resource issues like parks. From there, I came back to Sheridan for a few years, was hired to come back during the Reagan administration to run Congressional Affairs for the National Park Service. From there, went back to Malcolm Wallop’s office as his Chief of Staff and eventually the staff director of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which had oversight over energy policy and public lands policy.

Wendy Corr:

That is quite the journey. My goodness. So you ended up spending so many years in Washington, DC, which is a world away from Wyoming. Tell me about how your then-journey got to be, you were appointed the Assistant Secretary of the Interior. Tell us about that, and when that happened, and what your reaction was to that.

Rob Wallace:

I spent a lot of time running government relations for GE’s Energy Division in Washington, came back to Wyoming with my family and thought I was going to retire. And another one of those “If you want to tell God your plans, look out.” But around 2018, I was talking to Senator Barrasso, and he'd been talking to people in the Reagan administration and they were looking for people from Wyoming that might be interested in coming back and working in the administration. So along about, gosh, early 2019, I get a call from the Secretary of Interior, wants me to come back, visit with the White House, visit wit him. And then things just went silent. I didn't hear anything - I thought, “What a nice opportunity, being considered, what a nice opportunity.” Then the FBI started showing up, knocking on neighbors doors, asking about what I do. And I thought, maybe this has some legs.

Wendy Corr:

Whoa, that's a little spooky. But again, kind of exciting for you, because then you’re thinking, well, maybe this is an opportunity. What happened then, when did you get the news? 

Rob Wallace:

I got the news I think in May of 2019. Again, there's no how-to manual on how to do something like this. Something was published in the White House press release, that the President United States nominates Rob Wallace of Wyoming to the Department of Interior, and the phone lights up and away you go. I took a couple of months to prepare for it, the job had to be confirmed by the US Senate. So that took a while getting ready for that confirmation hearing. And it was, I got the dream job that I never knew I wanted. 

Wendy Corr:

That you never knew you wanted. And really interesting things happened while you were with the interior. Okay, so the first first thing we have got to do, we’ve got to talk about the Tiger King. Tell me, Rob, about the Tiger King and how the Department of the Interior had its fingers in this particular case.

Rob Wallace:

Well, for those people in your listening audience that were bored and not sure what to do during COVID, there was this amazing Netflix series called “The Tiger King” about a guy that ran a tiger breeding facility in Oklahoma. And he was on the slippery of the slipperiest slopes. He did things that were beyond the pale and a lot of them illegal. 

Wendy Corr:

And he was from Laramie too, which is so crazy. 

Rob Wallace:

Oh, was he really? Yeah, yeah, he lived in Laramie. 

Rob Wallace:

Oh my goodness. See, I'm learning something already today. 

Wendy Corr:

There you go. So keep telling us about Joe, about Joe Exotic here.

Rob Wallace:

Well, before he was a star through the Netflix series, he was into a lot of shady things, including hiring a couple of thugs to kill a competitor of his in Oklahoma, a murder for hire. But what really got him - and that was what I found the most interesting, and this happened a few months before I actually took over the job - but he was also convicted of killing tigers, in violation of the Endangered Species Act and the Lacey Act. And he was caught by agents that reported, not to me, but to the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, who reported to me. So these are the guys that got him.
And they tell the funny story, that at his trial in Oklahoma City, the US attorney is presenting the case against him. The jury is about half asleep, because murder for hire, you know, in Oklahoma, that's nothing new. But then the agent said, “He also shot five tigers,” and everybody in the jury pool woke up and started paying attention to the case. And 22 years in federal prison for the crime, of which about half of that's for killing the tigers. 

So yeah, wildlife matters in the justice system. 

Wendy Corr:

That's a good thing. Well, like you say, people pay attention to those sorts of things. It's so interesting that the tigers were more important than the human lives. But still, yeah. So, that just absolutely blew my mind. 

Tell me, you had some other really interesting things that happened while you were in Washington, DC, that were directly related to Wyoming. One of the things was using Wyoming wild mustangs at the border. Tell us about that, because that's really fascinating.

Rob Wallace:

That that was one of those surprising experiences that I had, too, that I had no idea was out there in the world. But everybody's aware of the controversy about protecting the border. It's politically charged, President Trump was for building the wall. And what people don't realize in that conversation, but in addition to wanting to build the wall, he was also instructing us at the Department of Interior to be aware of the consequences to wildlife with that wall. There's dozens of animals that migrate back and forth between the United States and Mexico - cougars, jaguars, ocelots, wolves, Sonoran pronghorn, lots of back and forth between the borders, so we wanted to be sure that whatever the Customs and Border Patrol was doing, there were gates and abilities to move animals back and forth. And I found that the CBD, the Customs and Border Patrol, was very responsive to things that we had to do. 

But like any complicated issue, it's not one size fits all. The border is a 2000 mile border that goes from basically Tijuana, San Diego, on the Pacific, all the way over to the Gulf of Mexico, is a very complicated ecosystem. The first third of the border runs from like South Arizona, all the way to San Diego, San Diego runs right along a Mexican Federal Highway number two, it'd be like driving from Laramie to Rock Springs, almost a straight shot, you could stop anywhere you wanted to and just jump out and head north. So that was an area that was a priority for being protected. 

The second third kind of ran through southwestern Texas, El Paso, Big Bend, that's pretty desolate country. And I don’t even know if you even need a wall down there, regardless, if you get caught in that country. 

And the last third, about the last 200-300 miles ran from about McAllen, Texas all the way to the Gulf of Mexico along the Rio Grande Valley, a very rich - think of going from the red desert up here into the Tetons. It's about that long - managed by ranchers, by NGOs, by the state, by the federal government for the wildlife. One of the biggest areas is a place called the Bensten Butterfly Center and the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, a very rich area, home to 500 species of birds, 300 species of butterflies - a wall being plowed through that area would basically disrupt a very large, rich part of the habitat.

Here is where Wyoming comes to save the day. The Customs and Border Patrol guys, they weren't that interested in a wall down there, either. They knew what it meant to the other communities, to the ecosystem. But they came up with the idea of using wild horses captured in Wyoming and other western states that were trained by federal prisoners at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas and then brought to Texas to patrol that very rugged spot along the Rio Grande Valley. 

And I had a chance to go down there and spend time in the barn with the agents. And those guys said, “Those Wyoming horses kick ass. I mean, nobody wants to do anything else, except ride those horses, because they're not afraid of anything - rattlesnakes, gunfire, they'll walk through anything.” And it was quite a sight to see, how happy they were with Wyoming contributing to border security.

Wendy Corr:

And who would have thought that Wyoming would contribute with security in that way, but Wyoming has made Wyoming as a state that things that happen here have really made an impact on policy, on Wildlife Policy, on national parks, things like that, for the entire history of Wyoming. And that's something that you had mentioned to me when we were preparing for this interview. Rob, tell us about other ways that Wyoming has really impacted policy and impacted the way that our country views wildlife, that our country views national parks, and that we experience those things.

Rob Wallace:

I was so proud to be from Wyoming, and would tell that story, traveling wherever I did. 

If you think about the history of Wyoming, you clearly have the Native Americans, you have have John Colter and Lewis and Clark - but those first expeditions, those scientific expeditions that started coming into Wyoming after the Civil War, and studying the Yellowstone Area. They brought Thomas Moran, the famous painter, and William Henry Jackson, one of the early pioneer outdoor photographers, along on those scientific expeditions to study Yellowstone, and tell the world what a remarkable place Northwestern Wyoming was. 

And as a result of those studies that were published, and in Washington, within six months, I believe of the first study being sent to Washington, President Grant stopped the pursuit of the post Civil War era, Congress stopped, and they passed the law creating Yellowstone National Park, the first national park in the country - 1872. And now there are probably 500 or 600 parks around the world, modeled after Yellowstone, all happening in our little state of Wyoming. 

But it's more than that. The National Park Service was created as a result of the First World War, when army troops stationed at Mammoth were sent to fight on the front in Europe, and they needed something to replace those troops that had protecting Yellowstone since its early days. So out of that became the National Park Service. Born out of the need to fill that void when soldiers left Yellowstone.

Wendy Corr:

I'm learning so much here. I didn't know that. That's great. What else? 

Rob Wallace:

And it gets even better. In 1929, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. was visiting Yellowstone with his family. And the director of the Park Service in Washington said to the Superintendent, “Do not lobby him about Grand Teton and what's going on down there. I know it's a special place, but he's there for vacation.” Well, the superintendent may take no attention to that. He said, “Mr. Rockefeller, grab your family, get in the Model T, we're going to drive south to the site of the present Jackson Lake Lodge and look at this marvelous stretch of land that is in Wyoming.” So Mr. Rockefeller saw the Tetons and said, “What can I do to help?” 

And it was the first sort of big, philanthropic scaled effort by private citizens to help protect a slice of land. And it was very controversial here in northwestern Wyoming for decades, because ranchers primarily sold to the Rockefellers during the Depression, when land prices were suppressed. But over time, I think anybody that lives up here, or lives anywhere in Wyoming, thinks that was a pretty darn good investment.

Wendy Corr:

I think that I would agree. Absolutely. You're contributing to the beautification and the preservation of this incredible landscape that, like you say, is right here in Wyoming. That's the fun part. 

Rob Wallace:

That's right. I’ve got one more story to share.

Back when the park was first created, there were laws against killing animals, but really no penalty. So if you're caught poaching, you know, you might have your guns confiscated, you might not be able to go to the visitor center, the gift shop, I don't know what it is. But back in the early 90s, a very notorious poacher held up this stagecoach, and robbed a guy named John F. Lacey, who was at the time, a retired civil war general from Iowa.

John Lacey didn't like the idea that he never got to Yellowstone, never got to see a bison. And a few years later, another robbery took place. This time the guy was captured by - and there was a  group of reporters there traveling with an army patrol - the poacher just said, “You can't touch me. I'm invincible. You guys are a bunch of bureaucrats. I’ll see you later with new guns and new crews.”

A guy wrote the story, telegraphed it to the country, it was a sensation - much bigger than even the Tiger King was. And who read the story, but a new congressman from Iowa named John F. Lacey, who had just been elected. So he said, “I'm going to do something about that.” He passed the first Lacey Act that made it illegal to increase penalties for killing wildlife out of season. He followed it up with a second Lacey Act that made it illegal to export animals that were illegally killed. And he also wrote the Antiquities Act, which was one of the biggest pieces of legislation that was used for protecting the Grand Canyon, Devil's Tower. And all because the guy got robbed going to Yellowstone and couldn't see a bison.

And the Lacey Act today, that's one of the things that the Tiger King is in jail for, for violating the Lacey Act. It controls everything in the country, in terms of wildlife, and all of it starting in Yellowstone. So yeah, lots of fun stories. Great stories. 

Wendy Corr:

Rob, those are great. You've got so many stories like that. But I want to take just the next step on thatm then talking about wildlife and things like that. When you were - how long were you there in the role of the Assistant Secretary of the Interior? 

Rob Wallace:

A little under two years.

Wendy Corr:

And so during that time, I'm sure you got an earful about the Endangered Species Act, and you became very, very familiar with the Endangered Species Act. What are your thoughts? I mean, we've got grizzly bears. We've got wolves, These are the two high profile animals that we talk about when we're talking about endangered species. What are your thoughts on the Endangered Species Act and where it needs to go from here? What needs to happen next?

Rob Wallace:

That's a great question. Again, Wyoming’s at the forefront of the Endangered Species Act. The grizzly bears were one of the first species listed in 1975. The wolves in 1994, when they were introduced into Yellowstone. A little known story is the whooping crane over in Wheatland, it was right at the middle of the controversy and the first tranche of Endangered Species Act litigation. 

And the Endangered Species Act, when it passed in 1972, was almost unanimous in the Congress. Everybody liked the idea of the purpose. It was basically an ER for flora and fauna, an opportunity to you know, to get animals, plants, fish at risk, get them into the emergency room, you know, change whatever needs to be changed and send it back out. 

But it's now turned into being something more like the Hotel California - if you get in there, good luck getting out. 

Wendy Corr:

That is so true. And a lot of people here think that. 

Rob Wallace:

And I think what happens, when people believe that the system is gamed against actually announcing species are recovered, like the grizzly bear - there were a hundred and some grizzly bears in 1975. There's over 500 in the ecosystem now, and I literally see more grizzlies outside of Yellowstone now than I do traveling through the park. And you probably see that in Cody also. Right? 

Wendy Corr:

Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. You just drive to Yellowstone and you've got ample opportunities.

Rob Wallace:

And same with the gray wolf - the wolf went from 31 in 1995, when they were first introduced into Yellowstone, to probably over 500 in the ecosystem now, and the grizzlies are more like a thousand.

Wendy Corr:

Yeah, those are amazing, amazing recovery numbers. And yet, the grizzly bear is still on the endangered species list. 

Rob Wallace:

Yeah, I know. When I was in Interior, I spent a lot of time with the professionals whose opinion I valued and listened to. They would tell me that the bears are ready to come off the list. And it gets caught in a in a cobweb of partisan politics, and somebody files a lawsuit introducing a new issue, it gets drug out. But I feel eventually that bear is going to come off the list, as it should.

Wendy Corr

As it should, for anybody who lives in - especially Northwest Wyoming - we can tell you, there's bears everywhere. And again, Rob, you've had such a unique perspective on this, because you've been deep into it in the Washington end of things. In your years in politics, because you've had a lot of years in politics, how have things - we won't talk about how many years but you know, it's fair. Where have you seen things go either right, or awry, from the perspective of Wyoming's presence there and the things that are important to Wyoming? Whether it's energy, whether it's wildlife, what have you seen? And have you seen that develop over the years, since you were first in DC with Malcolm Wallop?

Rob Wallace

Yeah, that's a great question. You know, everybody looks at that period in their life where they're feeling on top of the world, as the best time in their life. I would say that during the time I worked with Malcolm Wallop, and Al Simpson, and Dick Cheney was in Congress, that it can't get any better. 

I look at it today, and it seems more tribal, it seems harder to get things done. But maybe the people that are there today that are my age back then are going to look back at, you know, 2024, and say, “Boy, this was the best of times.” So I don't know how to answer that. 

Wendy Corr:

I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not. But okay. 

Rob Wallace:

I don't either. But it makes me wonder. I worked at a time when it really was, partisanship was the coin of the realm. You worked together to get complicated problems passed. You know, the 1994 wilderness bill, which is responsible for some of the great wilderness areas in Wyoming - you know, the Popo Agie, the Gros Ventre, Jedediah Smith, probably a half a dozen wilderness areas were passed under that old model of, we're going to make a bipartisan effort to get this right. 

The delegation spent literally years traveling around the state rolling out maps, talking to county commissioners, NGOs, ranchers, mining industry, saying, “What can we do here?” And out of that came a piece of legislation that created wilderness in Wyoming, that almost everybody today thinks that was a really good piece of legislation.

If you look at the Bears Ears in Utah, that's just the opposite. You know, one administration blows it up, the next administration shrinks it down. There's really never any consensus about what to do with this remarkable piece of property. And that's too bad. That Wyoming model, if they tried that in Utah, might have resulted in a much bigger outcome.

Wendy Corr:

Wow, okay. That's, again, insights, insights on the history of Wyoming and on the way things work and the way things used to work. 

Rob, I do want to ask you, on a personal level, what do you do now, when you're “retired”? What are your days like? You are a busy, busy guy - we tried to do this interview, back in February. It’s like,”Catch me in March.” What are you doing with yourself these days?

Rob Wallace:

Well, I am 100% failing retirement.

Wendy Corr:

All right. So what are you doing to not retire? 

Rob Wallace:

Well, I've spent the last three or four months working with the Grand Teton Park Foundation and members of the legislature, to work on a law during this budget session that just ended, that would enable the state landlord to sell a school section in Grand Teton National Park, known as the Kelly section, directly to the National Park Service. 

Wendy Corr:

You're working with the Kelly parcel. Okay. Tell us your perspective on this, because this has been a huge controversy. Tell us your perspective on this.

Rob Wallace:

Well, it passed in a budget bill, a provision authorizing the land board to sell the parcel for a very discounted price of $100 million. 

Wendy Corr:

Yeah, sure. No problem. Yeah.

Rob Wallace:

Which is about 40% above the appraised value of the parcel. And I think it's going to protect that parcel forever. It's a legacy effort on behalf of the legislature, the governor, the people that worked on it, it's something that I'm very proud to have been a part of. 

Wendy Corr:

That is fabulous. Rob, so you're continuing to do rewarding things, things that help the environment, things that help wildlife, even into a time of your life when you should be relaxing. Do you golf? I mean really.

Rob Wallace:

Badly. As Jimmy would know. 

Wendy Corr:

Okay. All right, we'll ask him. Rob, this has just been a fantastic conversation, and I'm so pleased that we had this chance to visit. Rob, tell me about Wyoming, in your heart, coming back to Wyoming after the years that you spent in Washington DC. Tell us about your Wyoming. What is it that you love about this state and about its people and about its landscapes?

Rob Wallace

Oh, that for sure is a long series on its own end. But it's a small state in terms of the population. We talk about your band in Cody, and our friend Jimmy Orr in Cheyenne. And we could pick any other community in Wyoming and have a story about somebody we know and respect and miss. And that's special.

You like looking at the state and knowing how it's wired together. You know how everything fits together, and where to go for help, or where you might be able to help somebody. And my goodness, you know, I'm blessed to be up here in Teton County. But I was down in Saratoga last weekend, and looking at the Sierra Madres, and the Medicine Bow range, and up in Bighorn and down in the Uintas, and we just live in such a fascinating place. And I hope we all have the wisdom and foresight to know that, and take care of it, and take care of each other and go back to that kind of nonpartisan way of solving our problems.

Wendy Corr:

Rob, from your mouth, to God's ears, genuinely. And to those of us who are proud to be Wyomingites, who are proud to live here and love living here. 

So Rob, this has been a great conversation. Thank you so much for your time today. And good luck with your upcoming projects. What's next for you?

Rob Wallace:

I don't know yet. I don't know yet. 

Wendy Corr:

Your schedule is flexible now. I can't say open, but it's flexible so far. 

Rob, thanks for taking some time for us today. And folks, thank you for tuning in to the roundup. We've had just a fun conversation with Rob Wallace today. We've got more amazing conversations coming up in the future, so don't miss an episode on any of the streaming services - on YouTube on Cowboy State daily.com, you'll be able to find all of our previous podcasts. So don't miss out, and tune in next week. Thanks for joining us today. I'm your host, Wendy Corr. Have a wonderful week.

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Wendy Corr

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