The Trump administration is notorious for leaving crucial leadership positions in the federal government vacant. Many federal agencies, including NASA and the EPA effectively operated without a head for several months during the first half of the Trump presidency, but few positions have remained empty for as long as the Director of the National Parks Service. This position has been vacant ever since its former director, Jonathan Jarvis, stepped down in early 2017 after an 8 year stint.
Shortly thereafter, Michael Reynolds took over as Acting Director of NPS, a position he held up until last January. Since then, the NPS has been overseen by its new deputy director, Paul Smith, who is considered by many environmentalists to be a controversial figure. Smith is notable for being an “enemy of the trees” after he decided to allow a deforestation project in a national park to humor an NFL team owner, as well as for his vulgar displays of disrespect.
Although the NPS has managed to keep its operations in full swing during its 19 months without an official director, this period of vacancy may soon come to an end. In early July, rumors began to circulate that Trump would select Raymond ‘David’ Vela as his nominee for the director of the National Parks Service. In late August, Trump officially announced Vela as his nominee. Vela’s nomination was introduced in Congress in early September and is currently being evaluated by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
The director of the National Parks Service is ultimately responsible for charting the future of the United States’ wilderness. At at time when the Trump administration is actively privatizing America’s parks and pushing for policies that will significantly decrease the size of the country’s national parks, the director of the NPS can and should act as a bulwark against these regressive policies. WCC has compiled a profile of the nominee responsible for protecting America’s national parks so you can know what to expect in the coming years.
WHAT DOES THE NPS DIRECTOR DO?
The National Parks Service was formally established by the US Congress in August 1916, which also established the office of NPS Director. The first director, Stephen Mather, oversaw the expansion of public park access in the United States during his 12-year tenure as director. Today, the Director of the NPS oversees a budget of approximately $3 billion, which is used to employ around 27,000 NPS employees and maintain 417 sites, 60 of which are national parks.
Historically, the role of the NPS Director has been to shape US policy around national parks. This involves everything from creating new wilderness stewardship programs to promoting and expanding access to national parks.
Stephen Mather, center, the original Director of the NPS. Image: Wikimedia Commons
WHO IS RAYMOND VELA?
Raymond “David” Vela has been nominated to replace Smith as the Director of the National Parks Service as soon as he’s okayed by Congress. At 57-years old, Vela has been a lifetime employee of the National Parks Service and is the first Hispanic American to be nominated for the position. Since 2014, he has served as the superintendent of the Grand Teton national park in northwestern Wyoming.
Vela graduated from Texas A&M University with a Bachelor of Science in recreation and parks. His first position with the NPS was obtained in 1981, when he served as a “cooperative education student” at the San Antonio Missions park in Texas, the same park where he would later become a ranger. He also served as a ranger at the Appomattox Court House national park in Virginia and the National Historical Park in Philadelphia.
In 1987, Vela took a decade-long break from the NPS to do criminal investigations as a special agent for the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General. He also briefly served as the director of Texas’ child support program in the late 90s. In 1998, Vela returned to the NPS at the Palo Alto Battlefield in Texas.
Vela has styled himself as a champion of diversity and has argued that the NPS workforce needs to “reflect the face of America.” Although he is less of a controversial figure within the NPS than Smith, not everyone is happy with his nomination. The Western Values Project, a conservation watchdog, has cited a “troubling pattern” of failing to disclose certain NPS activities to the public and limiting public comment periods on NPS policies.
“At a time when the National Park Services is under threat from Secretary Zinke’s privatization scheme, mismanagement, fee hikes, vindictive reassignments, and looming extractive resource development on park borders, choosing a nominee who has a history of keeping the public in the dark is concerning to say the least,” Chris Saeger, the Executive Director of the Western Values Project, said in a statement.
There is, of course, a possibility that Vela won’t receive Congressional approval, but this is pretty unlikely given that every other nominee for the NPS in history has been approved. An official date for Vela’s confirmation hearing in Congress hasn’t been announced yet, but check back at WCC for more details as they become available.