Is David Vela the Right Choice for the National Park Service?

Trump’s nominee may not be as great as he seems

By Casey O'Brien

November 13, 2018


David Vela, Superintendent of Grand Teton National Park | Photo by AP Photo/The Christian Science Monitor, Ann Mermes

After nearly two years without a director, the National Park Service may soon have a new leader. On November 15, Raymond David Vela will appear before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee as senators consider his nomination to be the new head of the Park Service. Vela, a career Park Service employee, initially earned praise from the environmental and conservation community when he was selected as Trump’s pick. But not everyone is excited about the prospect of Vela heading the agency. Some environmental watchdogs are concerned about Vela’s track record on wilderness management, transparency, and park planning. And Vela is facing tough questions from the American Civil Liberties Union, which doesn’t want Vela confirmed until he addresses questions about the NPS’s recent proposals to restrict political protests and rallies in Washington, D.C.  

Vela has been with the NPS for 28 years; most recently, he served as superintendent of Grand Teton National Park. He also served as the associate director of Workforce, Relevancy and Inclusion in the Park Service’s D.C. office and as the NPS’s Southeast director. Fans of Vela tout his experience with diversity and inclusion inititatives as a plus for the parks. Outside magazine called him “a win,” and the National Parks Conservation Association CEO,Theresa Pierno, enthusiastically backed Vela, saying, “During his tenure with the Park Service, Vela has established a robust program to train the next generation of park leaders prioritizing inclusion and diverse partnerships.” If confirmed, Vela would be the Park Service’s first Latino director. 

There are concerns, however, about whether Vela is up to what is objectively a monumental task. With a more than $11 billion maintenance backlog even as visitation skyrockets, the NPS is dealing with major challenges in terms of ensuring a quality visitor experience. The agency has experienced serious power struggles with Secretary Zinke, and it is still reeling from 2016 reports that found rampant sexual harassment in parks throughout the NPS system. The fatal shooting of an unarmed, 25-year-old Virginia man by park police last year has also caused controversy for the NPS. 

As director, Vela would have to move fast to address these concerns about funding and accountability. But Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) warns that Vela would a “pliant placeholder.” The organization—which represents former and current employees at major land-management agencies, including the Interior Department—wrote a letter to Congress urging the committee not to confirm Vela. “If I had to summarize it into one thing . . . the largest concern is that he would be a mediocre leader of a troubled agency,” said Jeff Ruch, PEER’s executive director. “It’s the lack of vision.” 

PEER is particularly concerned about Vela’s commitment to preserving parks and protecting wilderness. In 2011, while Vela was director of the Southeast region, he approved allowing off-road vehicles in the public lands adjacent to Florida’s Big Cypress National Reserve. PEER and other environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club, sued over the issue. “What the ORV thing showed us, basically, is that he has no inclination to protect park resources,” Ruch said. (The Sierra Club hasn’t taken a position on Vela’s nomination.)  

Vela also approved the construction of new cellphone towers in Grand Teton National Park, without, in PEER’s assessment, sufficient public notice or comment. “To us, this shows that transparency just isn’t an issue [for him],” said Ruch. PEER’s letter to the Senate committee members states, “Under Superintendent Vela, Grand Teton is developing the largest wireless network in any national park, all behind closed doors. Besides the utter lack of transparency, the secrecy precludes examination of important management concerns.”  

These issues—as well as the fact that Grand Teton did not develop a general management plan under Vela—has led PEER to the conclusion that the nominee is not the right pick for the job, even though the lengthy vacancy of the position is not ideal either. “[We don’t see him doing anything to protect resources or doing anything to help people chart a considered course forward,” Ruch said.  

In addition to these criticisms, the ACLU doesn’t want Vela confirmed without a commitment to protect the right to free speech and assembly in Washington, D.C. The ACLU of D.C. urged the committee to demand a promise from Vela that he wouldn’t follow through on the protest restrictions recently proposed by NPS. “If confirmed, Mr. Vela will be uniquely positioned to either protect or damage First Amendment rights on the most storied lands for political protest,” the ACLU chapter wrote.  

The confirmation hearing will be broadcast live on the committee’s website on Thursday, November 15.