WASHINGTON — On Aug. 31, President Donald Trump named the superintendent of Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park to head the National Park Service, a job that has been filled on an acting basis for nearly 20 months.
If confirmed by the Senate, David Vela would become the first Hispanic to lead the agency.
Vela is a 28-year career veteran who has worked at parks across the country and was director of the Southeast region for four years. Before his post as regional director, he spent four years in Washington as the associate director of NPS’ Workforce, Relevancy and Inclusion.
The agency has not had a Senate-confirmed director since Jonathan Jarvis retired in January 2017, days before Trump took office.
Vela said in a statement that he hopes to reduce the park service’s multibillion-dollar maintenance backlog, “protect our national treasures and serve all who come to enjoy the parks.”
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke called Vela a seasoned leader who has served at every level of the organization.
“David Vela has demonstrated all of the ideals that the National Park Service stands for, and his long track record of leadership on behalf of the people and places of the National Park Service distinguish him as the right man for the job,” Zinke said in a statement.
Will Shafroth, president and CEO of the National Park Foundation, a private group that raises money to protect and enhance national parks, applauded Vela’s selection.
“David Vela understands the challenges facing our national parks and the power of working with partners to address them,” Shafroth said.
Not everyone is sold on Vela’s confirmation, however.
Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said the organization has some concerns about Vela’s lack of transparency in park operations, among other things.
In a news release issued Sept. 4, PEER listed a few of the issues of concern surrounding Vela during his tenure at Big Cypress Natural Preserve and Grand Teton National Park. The group said Vela violated NPS regarding public notice and comment on park management when he approved a plan for 11 new cellular towers in Grand Teton National Park, along with withholding all documents related to the plan from the public.
The group also expressed concern over what it called Vela’s failure to adopt a federally-required General Management Plan for Grand Teton, nor did he put in place mandated measures to protect park resources from damage caused by overcrowding and record-breaking visitation.
“As it stumbles into its second century, our National Park System faces mounting challenges which call for a real leader with vision, rather than a pliant placeholder,” Ruch said. “PEER’s direct experience with Mr. Vela gives us great pause about endorsing his nomination.”
Prior to his tenure at Grand Teton, Vela also raised eyebrows for working with then-Big Cyrpress National Preserve Superintendent Pedro Ramos to make about 40,000 acres added to the preserve in 1996 ineligible for wilderness status. The ineligibility supported Ramos’ and Vela’s decision to allow up to 130 additional off-road vehicle trails in the preserve.
Aside from those allegations, Ruch said so far, Vela has not indicated he has a plan for dealing with issues such as overcrowding and maintenance backlogs at parks nationwide.
“We urge the (Senate) committee to find out specifically what this nominee expects to accomplish if confirmed,” Ruch said. “At this point in their history, our national parks need a shrewd game plan, not a pep rally.”
Vela began his career with NPS as a cooperative education student at San Antonio Missions National Historical Park in Texas in 1981 and later became a park ranger there. He also served at Appomattox Courthouse National Historical Park in Virginia and Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia before leaving NPS to work for other government agencies. He has held superintendent posts at Palo Alto Battlefield National Historic Site, Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park, and the George Washington Memorial Parkway.
Vela is a graduate of Texas A&M University, with a Bachelor of Science degree in recreation and parks. He graduated from the U.S. Department of the Interior Senior Executive Service Candidate Development Program in May 2006.
Daniel Smith, a retired park superintendent who gained notoriety after helping Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder cut down trees near his home, has been the agency’s acting director since January. Smith replaced Michael Reynolds, who clashed with Trump over photographs showing the crowd size at Trump’s inauguration.
Associated Press writer Matthew Daly contributed to this report.