We want people to come back.’ Assistant Interior Secretary says national parks are safe

If this were a normal year, Montana’s national parks and recreation areas would already be filled nearly to capacity.

The visitors center at Logan Pass would be crowded with motorists pausing midway through their journey across Going-to-the-Sun Road. The ring of cash registers would echo throughout cafes and souvenir shops in West Yellowstone, and the docks at Ok-A-Beh Marina would be filled with boaters preparing to explore Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area.

However, the summer of 2020 is not a normal one.

While millions of Americans are eager to escape the strictures of stay-at-home orders to visit our National Parks, just as many are hesitant about the likelihood of intermingling with large, potentially maskless crowds at National Park campgrounds, restaurants and interpretive centers.

Add to that, many of the most popular features at our nation’s national parks are either closed or operating at reduced capacity. Neither the red “jammer” tour buses nor the boat tours at Glacier National Park will operate this year. Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Inn, Roosevelt Lodge, and Grant Village will all remain closed for the 2020 summer season, and the Ok-A-Beh Marina, Ok-A-Beh swim beach and Yellowtail Dam Visitor Center remain closed at Bighorn Canyon.

Nonetheless, the message from the Trump administration and the Interior Department officials who oversee them is that our national parks and recreation areas are open, and that Americans should get out and enjoy them.

“We want people to come back and visit parks,” said Assistant Interior Secretary Rob Wallace during an interview with the Great Falls Tribune. “The President and the Secretary of the Interior are encouraging us to get open as soon as we can, but doing it safely.”

Sitting on the back deck of his house in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Wallace spoke of his divergent career, spanning both sides of the conservation and resource extraction ethos.

After graduating from the University of Texas with a degree in petroleum engineering, Wallace worked for five years as a seasonal ranger at Grand Teton National Park. In the 1980s he served for three years as the National Park Service’s Assistant Director of Government Relations, before becoming Republican Staff Director for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

From 1995 to 2012 Wallace was a registered lobbyist for General Electric Power. Then he co-founded the Upper Green River Conservancy, a pro-environmental organization that advocates for the protection of sage grouse habitat in southwestern Wyoming.

“The power of being outdoors in the surroundings of Grand Teton National Park — it just made me feel good about life,” Wallace said of what attracted him as a young man to work for the National Park Service. “I just thought if I could figure out some way to have that as part of my career I’d be a very lucky person.”

Wallace said he was first contacted regarding the job as Assistant Interior Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt in late 2018. President Trump nominated him for the position in May 2019 and he was confirmed by a unanimous vote of the U.S. Senate the following month.

Wallace’s message regarding our national parks was a blend of both optimism and concern — optimism that national park officials and states’ governors are well prepared for a phased reopening, and concern that if national park facilities remain closed for an extended period of time it will have a lasting negative effect on the economies of gateway communities.

Thus far the Trump administration’s policy has been to defer to the judgment of local authorities to dictate the timing and scope of national park reopenings.

“It’s measured by the thinking of the governors,” Wallace said. “We are tying it to go at the pace of the governors of the states where the parks are located. At Yellowstone; Wyoming and Montana have been moving forward, with GovernorGordon and Governor Bullock coordinating their responses. We’re trying to be respectful of their thinking about people coming back into their states to visit parks.”

Not everyone has expressed the same confidence in the reopening process. When Wyoming reopened its National Park entrances on May 18, lines of cars began forming at Yellowstone and Grand Teton before daybreak. By 11 a.m., one hour before the official reopening, the line at the Moran entrance of Grand Teton National Park included hundreds of cars stretching all the way back to U.S. Highway 26.

“What if everyone that leaves here goes and gets a bite in Jackson?” asked Mark Segal, a Wyoming local who was being interviewed by The Guardian newspaper. “This is exactly what we’re afraid of.”

Wallace acknowledged the concerns, but expressed confidence that park managers and surrounding gateway communities are prepared to adapt to changing conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic. He said the timetable for reopening will likely vary depending upon conditions in each individual state.

“Montana and Wyoming will open up faster than, for example, New York where we’ve got the Statue of Liberty, or some of the parks in California,” Wallace said. “It’s almost on a park by park basis, based on what we’re seeing in the communities.”

“I was in Yellowstone last week looking at how they are managing their openings and I’m confident that they’re thinking about it in the right way,” he added. “If something unexpected happens they’ll be able to move quickly to mitigate that, but right now, because of the deliberate way they’re opening I think that they’re going to be able to mitigate those concerns.”

While National Park officials work to confront the uncertainties of operating during a pandemic, recent events bode well for the future health of both the National Park system and other public lands across the United States.

On June 17 the U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly to approve passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, a landmark piece of conservation legislation that will provide a stable source of funding for both the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and to address a $12 billion backlog of deferred maintenance in the national parks.

“This is one of the few times in my career where I’ve seen a consequential piece of natural resource legislation gather the support of a President and also the majority and minority leadership of Congress,” Wallace said. “It passed the Senate on by a vote of 73-25, which is quite a strong vote.”

As drafted, the Great American Outdoors Act would provide about $900 million a year in permanent funding for the LWCF and another $1.9 billion per year for improvements at national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and rangelands. The act would not be funded with taxpayer monies. Instead, its expenditures would be financed by mineral revenues from energy development on federal lands and waters, under a system that has been in place for decades.

Wallace highlighted the importance of having a predictable source of funding for the LWCF, saying the Great American Outdoors Act would “make a remarkable difference on recreation and outdoor use by citizens.”

“The LWCF has three purposes,” Wallace explained. “Its a primary land acquisition fund for federal agencies such as the Park Service, BLM, Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It also has a very robust state matching fund program to help state parks, and in recent years they’ve also started funding special conservation initiatives like forest legacy programs and endangered species cooperative conservation funds. Everywhere you look its a bright spot for enactment of LWCF funding.”

Both of Montana’s senators were cosponsors and strong advocates for passage of the Great American Outdoors Act. However, Wallace singled out Republican Senator Steve Daines as a key influencer in securing President Trump’s support for the bill.

“President Trump has been supportive of it in some part because of the work that Steve Daines has done with the White House,” Wallace said.

“I met with President Trump on Feb. 27,” Daines said during an interview with the Tribune. “We sat across the table from each other and I showed him the importance of our public lands, specifically focused on our national parks, and the work we do in Montana with the Land and Water Conservation Fund.”

“This is an important win for our public lands, and its an important win for stewardship –  to make sure that we take care of them,” Daines added. “And lastly, its an important win for jobs. The outdoor recreation economy in Montana is somewhere around $7 billion. This is important as we look forward to get this economy back on track. I think it will be the most significant conservation win in 50 years.”

The Great American Outdoors Act is currently under review before the House Resource Committee. If approved the bill will be put before the full House for a vote later this year.

“I’m optimistic its going to get all the way to the President’s desk later this year,” Wallace predicted.

In reflecting upon his role as a steward of public lands, Wallace commented on the continued importance of the outdoors to people’s lives, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“You think of the irony of where we are right now,” he commented. “The giants of the National Parks ideal; John Muir, George Bird Grinnell, Teddy Roosevelt, Ansel Adams, all of those people intuitively understood the power of being outdoors. How it inspired and healed and comforted people – the wisdom of having this society that’s forever rich with a network of cultural and natural wonders.”

“People probably need parks more now than any other time in their memory,” he added. “We want people to come back and get outdoors again.”