Upper-echelon musical chairs continues to be the theme at the National Park Service, a federal agency that has lacked a permanent director since Donald Trump was sworn in as president two years and 85 days ago.
David Vela, who has presided over Grand Teton National Park since 2014, was in line for the job, having been nominated in August and having cleared a U.S. Senate committee confirmation hearing in November. With the new Congress, however, the Oval Office needed to renominate him. That still hasn’t happened, but on Friday, the agency’s de facto director, Dan Smith, sent out an all-staff email explaining that Vela has been shifted to the acting deputy director of operations job in Washington, D.C.
“Many of you have already worked with David and seen his leadership in action,” Smith wrote in the all-staff email. “We will all benefit from his leadership in building a next generation workforce that will protect our national treasures and serve all who will come to enjoy the parks as we chart a path forward for a second century of service.”
The email did not address Vela’s in-limbo status as Park Service director, a promotion that, once complete, would seemingly mean a demotion or termination for Smith, who identifies himself as “deputy director exercising the authority of director.”
Vela replaces Ray Sauvajot, the service’s associate director for natural resource stewardship, who stood in for Rick Obernesser, who retired. Vela and Smith are joined by a third deputy director: Lena McDowall, who oversees management and administration.
Journalist Kurt Repanshek, who runs the news site National Parks Traveler, broke the story about Vela’s reassignment.
Grand Teton National Park spokeswoman Denise Germann said she’s out of the loop on whether Vela is still the presumptive impending Park Service director.
“The renomination comes from the White House,” she said, “and I don’t know what is happening with that.”
For the time being, Teton park Deputy Superintendent Gopaul Noojibail is stepping in as acting superintendent.
“He’ll be in that position until David returns or a new superintendent is identified,” Germann said.
National Park Service top brass has been in considerable flux the past two years, due in part to involuntary reassignments ordered by former Interior head Ryan Zinke. Amid congressional ethics and conduct probes, Zinke resigned in December. Longtime oil industry lobbyist David Bernhardt, who was Zinke’s deputy, was confirmed as the new interior secretary last week, making him the person Smith and the eventual National Park Service director must answer to.
Trump has gone on record saying he prefers interim and acting officials over appointing permanent directors.
“I like acting because I can move so quickly,” the president told CBS’ “Face the Nation” in February. “It gives me more flexibility.”
Since his initial nomination eight months ago, Vela has continued to work as Teton park superintendent.
“He’s been in the position,” Germann said, “even if he was back in D.C. or in Texas.”
Vela stayed in that role through Monday, when he officially transitioned to the acting deputy director job, which is based at the Park Service’s Washington, D.C., headquarters.
Park Service public affairs personnel in the Washington, D.C., office did not grant an interview with Vela on Monday and declined comment.