Nineteen months into his administration, President Trump on Friday nominated a 28-year career manager to be director of the National Park Service.
Raymond David Vela, currently superintendent of Grand Teton National Park and the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway in Wyoming, drew praise from one parks advocacy group but criticism from an environmental one.
According to a resume provided by the White House, Vela has Washington experience, having served as associate director for workforce, relevancy and inclusion in the NPS headquarters in the Interior Department. He is also a graduate of Interior’s Senior Executive Service Candidate Development Program.
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Vela’s federal career began at San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. For four years, he was director of the NPS’ Southeast Region, before which he was park superintendent at Palo Alto Battlefield National Historic Site, Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park and the George Washington Memorial Parkway in the Washington area.
Vela is a graduate of Texas A&M University with a B.S. in recreation and parks.
On Friday he pronounced himself “deeply humbled” at the nomination. “Having worn the uniform of the National Park Service for more than 28 years,” he said in an Interior release, “I greatly value all that it represents and the importance of ensuring that we build a next generation workforce that is ready to take on the challenges and opportunities facing our agency.”
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke added that “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.”
House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, called the Vela choice “a superb decision,” adding that "addressing the maintenance backlog in our parks is long overdue, and Vela’s years of service in parks around the country will bring fresh advocacy to this continued effort.”
Interior also published praise-filled statements from Gov. Matt Mead, R-Wyo., and the heads of various parks foundations.
Independently, Theresa Pierno, president and CEO for National Parks Conservation Association, said, “Vela has established a robust program to train the next generation of park leaders prioritizing inclusion and diverse partnerships. Vela is a problem solver and is poised to take on many obstacles facing our parks as director, including threats from development, air and water pollution, climate change and record visitation. One of the more difficult challenges will be addressing an already underfunded National Park Service and its nearly $12 billion in needed repairs. We look forward to the timely confirmation of David Vela.”
The executive director of the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility was less enthusiastic. PEER is pursuing a legal case arguing that administration has illegally filled this and other Interior Department leadership positions with acting officials from outside the agency.
“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,” said Jeff Ruch, in a statement noting that his organization is concluding a Freedom of Information Act suit against Grand Teton for withholding its cell tower plans.
PEER criticized Vela’s “penchant for secrecy, instances of gaming the system to the detriment of park resources, and an apparent allergy to long-term planning required by law. PEER’s direct experience with Mr. Vela gives us great pause about endorsing his nomination.”
The position of NPS director has been officially vacant since the departure in January 2017 of Jon Jarvis. Michael Reynolds served for a year as acting director until January 2018, when Zinke moved him to be superintendent of Yosemite National park and named Dan Smith as deputy director serving while “exercising the authority of director for the National Park Service.”