David Vela pitched himself as the humble, principled child of a sharecropper in prepared remarks opening a mostly smooth-sailing Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee confirmation hearing last week.
Vela, who has led Grand Teton National Park since 2014, spoke favorably about the committee’s passed and pending Restore our Parks Act, bipartisan legislation that would use energy-development royalties to slash the National Park Service’s $11 billion-plus deferred maintenance backlog.
The Trump administration’s nominee, who, if confirmed, would be the agency’s first Latino director, also spoke strongly about addressing the recent sexual harassment scandals that have given the Park Service a black eye.
Tackling big issues
“We, as an agency, have fallen short in treating [workers] with the dignity and respect that they truly deserve,” Vela told the committee. “The scourge of sexual and workplace harassment in society and in the National Park Service must stop.”
A Wharton, Texas, native, Vela said he would lead by example if he goes on to become the 19th director in the Park Service’s 102-year history. The service, which manages 418 “units” nationwide, has lacked a director for nearly two years following Barack Obama-appointee Jon Jarvis’ retirement.
“The thing that I want to make sure, if confirmed, is that we have accountability — accountability throughout the entire chain of command,” Vela said. “It starts with the director. The director sets the tone.”
Committee member Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., wanted Vela to share specific plans on how he planned to deal with a “spree of unethical behavior” that has plagued the U.S. Department of the Interior and its child agencies.
Vela reiterated his accountability spiel, committing to provide ethical leadership that starts at the top.
The exchange left Wyden wanting more.
“I will tell you respectfully, sir, I asked specifically what you would change,” Wyden said. “All the words that you just offered me are certainly ones that I would agree with. I think virtually anybody would. It still doesn’t tell me what specifically you would do to change these unethical practices that are so destructive for an agency.
“I will not be able to support your appointment unless there are specifics given about what you would change,” he said, “because we cannot allow this to go on any longer.”
The Democratic ranking member on the committee, Sen. Maria Cantwell, of Washington state, asked Vela his views on the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The program, subject to allocations each federal budget cycle, provided half the $46 million the Park Service needed in 2016 to buy a 1-square-mile inholding Wyoming owned in the Antelope Flats area.
“In your view,” Cantewell asked Vela, “is the Land and Water Conservation Fund a good use of federal dollars, and do you oppose zeroing out of federal funding?”
Vela responded that the fund has “benefited and played a very important role” in helping the Park Service to achieve its interests.
Wanting an answer to her question, Cantwell asked, “And so you think we should fund it?”
Vela declined to answer and kept his personal views on the fund to himself.
“The president has included it, supported in his budget and has called for its reauthorization,” Teton park’s superintendent said.
Vela spoke of climate change as a reality that must be planned for.
“We must make ourselves relevant to current and future generations, while building a diverse population of conservation stewards and workforce,” he said. “From tackling the effects of climate change to addressing the visitor experience, future generations will be impacted by the decisions and actions that we take today.”
Senators’ individual asks
A number of senators wanted Vela’s take on Park Service issues specific to their states and commitment to addressing their needs.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., wanted Vela’s assurance that hunting could continue in the New River Gorge National River Area if it’s elevated, as planned, to be a full-fledged national park. He touched on Grand Teton’s so-called elk-reduction program, where hunters can only carry “so many shells” and take “so many shots.”
“That’s not how we hunt,” Manchin said. “When we go, we go.”
Vela pointed out that hunting and other traditional uses can be preserved if they’re part of a park unit’s enabling legislation.
“If confirmed, sir,” Vela said, “I would be very interested in having further conversations specifically in addressing your interests.”
Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s Chairwoman Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Ala., asked Vela for his assistance in helping build small hydroelectric facilities in Glacier Bay National Park. The infrastructure, she said, has been stymied by bureaucracy, but is needed to help the small community of Gustavus wean itself off costly diesel-powered electricity.
Vela said he would “absolutely” look into it.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., sought and was similarly granted assurances about enlisting Vela’s help to complete the planned Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library in his state.
Vela shared the nomination hearing with Rita Baranwal and Bernard McNamee, who respectively were nominated to become the assistant secretary of nuclear energy and a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
The full U.S. Senate must confirm Vela before he can be sworn in as the next Park Service director.