The recently departed superintendent of Grand Teton National Park is now calling the shots as the “acting” director of the National Park Service, overseeing more than 27,000 employees and 419 parks, monuments and other “units.”
David Vela had been President Trump and former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s pick to direct the Park Service beginning in the summer of 2018. But his nomination was not brought before the entire U.S. Senate for a vote. Subsequently, he was never renominated under the 116th U.S. Congress. In April, Vela departed Teton Park after a five-year stint to take a job as the Park Service’s acting deputy director of operations.
Vela’s new directorship has been the subject of rumor for weeks, and the story about the leadership change was broken by E&E News reporter Rob Hotakainen last week. U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt confirmed the news Monday afternoon, issuing an order that declared Vela would be “exercising the authority” of the presidentially appointed and Senate-confirmed position.
“The delegations made by this order will only be in effect until each vacant non-career position is filled by Senate-confirmed appointees,” Bernhardt wrote in the Sept. 30 memo.
In the nearly 1,000 days of the Trump administration, the Park Service has lacked a Senate-confirmed director, which suggests Vela could be at the helm for a while.
In his role as deputy director of operations, Vela was also politically inserted as an “acting” official into a position that legally must be Senate-confirmed — and the appointment was the subject of an inspector general complaint.
“It’s terrible that they’ve been surviving on ‘acting,’” said Kristen Brengel, the National Parks Conservation Association’s senior vice president of government affairs. “It’s not a way to provide any leadership within the agency.”
Otherwise, she said, Vela is a “wonderful” pick.
“He has a great track record, and he cares deeply about broadening the constituency of people who go to parks,” Brengel said. “He would be a wonderful director, but he needs to be reappointed.”
Vela has generally had broad support, including from the agency’s last legal and Senate-confirmed director, Obama appointee Jon Jarvis.
A native of Wharton, Texas, Vela is a 29-year Park Service veteran, and he would be the first person of Hispanic descent to lead the agency. He has made promoting diversity in the parks a hallmark of his career.
The retiring acting official he replaces, Daniel Smith, was mired in controversy throughout much of his Park Service career and has been the subject of inspector general ethics probes and sexual harassment complaints.
During a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee confirmation hearing last fall, Vela pitched himself as the humble, principled “child of a sharecropper” and said he would prioritize addressing the Park Service’s $11 billion-plus deferred maintenance backlog and the agency’s sexual harassment scandals. But Vela’s confirmation never made it to the Senate for a final vote.
The order declaring Vela as the employee who’s “exercising the authority” of Park Service director is scheduled to expire Jan. 3, 2020, unless it is extended, modified or revoked.