Robert Bonnie, Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Enviornment, US Department of Agriculture. USDA photo by Robert Nichols.

Robert Bonnie, Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment, US Department of Agriculture. USDA photo by Robert Nichols.

Alumni Profile: Robert Bonnie G’80 


Briefly describe your career after leaving St. Francis.

I graduated from Harvard in 1990 with a major in history, and in soccer. Mostly soccer! I spent the next two years working for a small conservation group, then returned to school and completed two master’s degrees, in forestry and resource economics, from Duke University. Growing up on a farm in Oldham County, land issues, conservation issues, and forestry issues have always been of interest to me.

While I was at Duke I joined the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). After I started at EDF, I doubled my course load at Duke and finished in 2 years; in January of 1995 I joined EDF full time. For the next 14 years I worked on endangered species projects, climate change projects, and interaction between forestry and climate. My final position with the EDF was as Vice President for Land Conservation, where I worked to  develop incentives to reward farmers, ranchers and forest owners for stewardship activities on private lands. In April of 2009, I was appointed by President Obama to the Department of Agriculture as Senior Advisor to the Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack.  I focused on environment and climate change until the summer of 2013 when I moved to my current position as Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment.


Looking back at your time at St. Francis, what stands out?

St. Francis was a wholly positive experience. Academically, I was good in math and science, not great in English and reading; I was nurtured and allowed to go at my own pace. St. Francis played to my strengths and helped strengthen my weaknesses. It was a school that concentrated on the individual. My relationships with classmates and teachers stand out; looking back I see that not everyone gets that in their school.


Do you recall a specific teacher or friend that influenced you in some way?

Mr. Stuecker was really important, as an advisor as much as anything. He was a brilliant teacher, of course, but the personal relationship we had was as important. Launching into adolescence isn’t always easy; his guidance was so helpful to me. Mr. Gupton, too – he was strict but wanted what was best for each of us. Every day he would spend his lunch refereeing soccer for the Middle School students.  


How was your experience at St. Francis a factor in determining your career path?

Self-confidence is important – a lot of that you’ll get from home, but a lot of it comes from your school. St. Francis builds you up, encourages you, but does not overwhelm you. The emphasis at St. Francis is on letting kids find the thing they’re good at; it’s not a conveyor belt, but rather lets children find their own way. St. Francis did that for me.


What are the highlights of your career thus far?

My goal has always been to do the most I can do to positively affect land conservation and environmental protection. People often think about controversy when they think about the EDF, controversy between landowners and environmental protection, but at EDF I tried to create a new way of doing business and to align the interest of landowners and the environment. Working to balance conservation with appropriate resource use has continued as I’ve come to USDA with the addition of now working with public lands. Within the USDA, the Forest Service has 193 million acres to protect and conserve, and the National Resource Conservation Service has billions of conservation dollars to spend to conserve wildlife, keep water clean, protect watersheds, and conserve land. Working in the USDA to protect and conserve these huge resources makes a lot of sense to me; it’s very collaborative work.


What are you currently working on?

Within those public lands, a big part of my job is dealing with wildfires out West. My job is primarily oversight, policy, and budget planning. When there is a wildfire anywhere, the federal government partners with local and state firefighters. We are constantly moving resources across the U.S. to manage those fires. The USDA has dozens of helicopters, 10,000 firefighters, large air tankers full of fire suppressants, and hundreds of engines all of which we have to move very, very quickly. My job is to try to restore healthy forests so they are less susceptible to fire.


How do you define success?

I measure my success in the benefits to the environment and the benefit to land conservation. Most of the time I measure that in acres conserved, wildfires suppressed, watersheds protected, but what can’t be lost is that the only way to make that happen is to work with lots of people. The human dimension is what ties it all together.


What’s next for you?

Well, I get fired in 14 months. I’m a political appointee so that’s automatic. So I have a different perspective on the question. I feel like I am the jockey in the final turn of a race, whipping, and leaning, and riding hard just trying to get past the finish. I want to get as much done as I can in these last few months; I want to create as much positive change as I can in the time I have left.