Lawsuit by nonprofits claims the National Park Service veteran R. David Vela was appointed illegally.
The third acting National Park Service director under the Trump administration abruptly announced on Friday he plans to retire next month amid a legal challenge to his appointment.
R. David Vela, NPS operations deputy director, who has been serving as acting director for less than a year, will retire in September. Margaret Everson, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service principal deputy director and adviser to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, will be delegated director responsibilities. Shawn Benge, now acting operations deputy director, will take over the deputy director role permanently. In the aftermath of widespread sexual assault and misconduct allegations throughout the Park Service the agency has dealt with prolonged vacancies, legal challenges to appointments and lack of a permanent director during the Trump administration.
“It has been my honor to serve as the deputy director of the National Park Service,” Vela said. “Over the past 30 years, I have had the distinct privilege of working alongside the men and women of the National Park Service to protect our nation’s most special places and all of the stories they contain.” Bernhardt also wished him well and thanked him for his service.
Vela previously served as associate director for workforce, relevancy and inclusion in the Washington headquarters, and as director of the NPS’ Southeast Region and superintendent at Palo Alto Battlefield National Historic Site, Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park and the George Washington Memorial Parkway in the Washington area. President Trump tapped Vela to be NPS director in September 2018, but the full Senate never voted on him and Trump didn’t re-nominate him during the current Congress. He was named acting director in October 2019 when then-acting director Paul Smith left following his “controversial” tenure at the agency, as E&E News reported.
Vela’s retirement comes after the nonprofits Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and Western Watersheds Project, an environmental conservation group, sued NPS in May, claiming Bernhardt violated the U.S. Constitution and Federal Vacancies Reform Act in naming Vela to be acting NPS director and William Perry Pendley to be acting Bureau of Land Management director. PEER filed a similar lawsuit over Smith’s appointment in February 2018.
“PEER plans to amend its current lawsuit on the illegal schemes in the Interior Department shortly to drop David Vela out and put in Margaret Everson as a co-defendant,” Peter Jenkins, PEER senior counsel, told Government Executive. “Bernhardt’s approach of delegating the NPS director’s authority to his own counselor plainly is against what Congress intended.”
The Trump administration has kept the permanent NPS director position “inexcusably vacant” throughout its tenure, Jenkins said. PEER has also been highly critical of the vast number of vacancies in NPS leadership positions. Of the 16 headquarters positions listed on the Park Service's website, three are vacant and eight have acting officials.
“It’s very disappointing to many of us who spent their careers in the national park system that we never had a permanent director for the past four years,” Philip Francis Jr., chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, which represents over 1,800 current, former and retired NPS employees and volunteers, told Government Executive. However, “given the circumstances he was working in, I think [Vela] probably did as well as he could.”
Francis said he was “glad to see” PEER’s recent lawsuit because the regular Senate confirmation process “gives agencies a sense of direction and confidence.” He said he believes Vela should have gone through this process.
Under Vela’s leadership, the agency recently came under fire for not requiring all national parks to close during the pandemic and the U.S. Park Police (a division of NPS) using chemical agents to clear protestors advocating for racial justice in Washington, D.C., in the wake of George Floyd’s death by police.
Francis said for those issues and others, “it’s hard to differentiate...which things that occurred were David’s decision or things David was told to do.”