Acting Director for the National Park Service
On September 30, 2019, it was announced that R. David Vela would be promoted to the position of acting Director of the National Park Service, replacing P. Daniel Smith.
Previously, on August 31, 2018, Donald Trump nominated Raymond “David” Vela to be Director of the National Park Service (NPS). Vela’s nomination did not receive a vote in the 115th Congress and he was not re-nominated as Director for NPS in the 116th Congress. On April 15th, 2019, it was reported that Vela would be the new acting deputy director of operations for NPS. On April 17th, 2019, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility filed a complaint with Interior’s Office of the Inspector General, stating acting NPS Director Daniel Smith does not have the authority to promote Vela.
Throughout his career at NPS, David Vela, who is currently Superintendent of Grand Teton National Park, has repeatedly ignored procedures intended to raise public awareness of NPS policy policies, and attempted to prevent the extension of public comment periods. Vela grew up in Wharton, Texas. In 1982, he graduated from Texas A&M with a Bachelor of Science degree in Recreation and Parks. He began his career with NPS a year earlier, in 1981, as a Cooperative Education Student at San Antonio Missions Historical Park in Texas. In 1984, he became supervisory Park Ranger at Virginia’s Appomattox Court House National Historical Park. In 1986 he became the District Ranger at Independence National Historical Park. Vela resigned from NPS in 1987 and worked for a variety of different offices within both the federal and Texas state government until 1998. He was a Special Agent with the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Office of Inspector General, performing white-collar criminal investigations in New York and New Jersey, a special assistant for Hispanic affairs for Texas Congressman George Leland, a federal investigator for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the director of the Texas State Attorney General Child Support Program.
Vela returned to NPS in 1998, serving as the Superintendent of Palo Alto Battlefield National Historic Site in Brownsville, Texas. In 2002, he was appointed Texas State Coordinator for the NPS Intermountain Region, then became the Superintendent of Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park in 2004, and Superintendent of George Washington Memorial Parkway in 2006. From 2008 to 2012, Vela was the NPS Southeast Regional Director. In 2012, he was named Associate Director for Workforce Management and worked at NPS headquarters in Washington, D.C. Vela began his current tenure as the Superintendent of Grand Teton National Park and the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway in March 2014.
[E&E News, 09/30/19, Press Release, Department of Interior, 08/31/18, “Trump’s nominee to lead NPS lands new job”, E&E News, 04/15/19, “NPS accused of violating law in moving former nominee”, E&E News, 04/15/19, Press Release, 01/24/18, Wes Siler, “Trump’s National Park Service Superintendent Is a Win,” Outside Magazine, 09/04/18, Kenny Wiley, “Aggie nominated to head National Park Service,“ The Eagle, 09/05/18, 2016 Keynote Speaker: David Vela, Wilderness Education Association, accessed 09/07/18, Press Release, National Park Service, 02/12/14, Angus Thuermer, “Diversity a specialty of new Teton superintendent,” Jackson Hole News & Guide, 02/12/14]
Additional Background on Employers of Note:
Vela repeatedly failed to follow procedures that would increase public awareness and input into NPS policies.
As Director of the Southeast Region, Vela tried to open 40,000 acres of “Addition lands” for off-road vehicle use in Big Cypress National Preserve. He submitted a request to the Director of NPS to “waive national Management Policies requiring that wilderness eligible lands be managed so as not to forfeit future designation as wilderness.” After his initial request was denied, Vela ordered a new Wilderness Eligibility Assessment (WEA) that “was done without public notice or participation.” The WEA allegedly consisted of “a series of unsupported declarations without citing authority or data.” The analysis was never made public, as the NPS “failed to publish the required notice in the Federal Register.” Following the WEA, Vela made a second waiver request, which was approved by then-NPS Deputy Director Dan Wenk in May 2010.
[Letter from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility to Lisa Murkowski and Maria Cantwell, 09/04/18, Kurt Repanshek, “PEER Questions David Vela’s Qualifications To Lead National Park Service”, Complaint from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility to NPS Washington Administrative Program Center, 12/29/10, Appeal from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility to Jon Jarvis, 06/29/11]
On June 29th, 2017, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) claimed that then-Grand Teton Superintendent David Vela failed to follow procedures to ensure public notification regarding construction of a cell tower within 10 days of the initial application. According to PEER, Grand Teton National Park (GRTE) had been receiving written applications for the cell towers since 2013, while public notice did not occur until April 2015. GRTE acknowledged that it had been received applications since 2013, but none of these applications were made public. According to PEER, GRTE also failed to comply with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NEPA), which requires that the public be consulted at the early stages of planning. GRTE had been working on the telecommunications plan for at least four years without providing the public with details. The public was never provided with descriptions of the land targeted for construction, maps of service levels, coverage site plans, or a photo-illustration of access.
[Letter from PEER to David Vela, 06/29/17, [“NEPA and NHPA: A Handbook for Integrating NEPA and Section 106,” Council on Environmental Quality, accessed 09/10/18, Telecommunications Infrastructure Plan and Environmental Assessment Scoping, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, accessed 09/10/18
Vela once refused a bipartisan congressional appeal to extend one public comment periods, and extended another only after being summoned by a sitting governor.
On April 16th, 2010, Congressman North Carolina Congressman Walter B. Jones and North Carolina Senators Richard Burr and Kay Hagan submitted a letter to then-NPS Director Jon Jarvis to extend the public comment period on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Cape Hatteras National Seashore Off-Road Vehicle Management Plan (DEIS) by an additional 30 days. The letter states: “The DEIS is a complex document that is over 800 pages long. It is also incredibly important – as NPS has stated, once finalized, the environmental impact statement ‘will form the basis for a special regulation, guiding the management and control of ORVs at the Seashore for the next 10 to 15 years.’ Given these facts, the 60-day comment period provided by the Park Service does not provide sufficient time for the public to adequately review such a significant document.” The letter goes on to request an extension of the comment period by 30 days “to allow taxpayers the opportunity to fully participate in this process.”
Vela, then the Southeast Regional Director of National Parks, replied on April 29th, 2010. He stated that the DEIS was made available for comment on March 5th, 2010, with a closing date of May 11th, 2010, and also noted that public hearings were held. The letter continues: “Based on this history and the current status of the process, we believe the current 60-day comment period fully meets the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act and provides ample opportunity for public involvement and comment. We have decided not to extend the public comment period at this time.”
[Letter from Walter B. Jones, Richard Burr and Kay Hagan to Jon Jarvis, 04/16/10, Letter from David Vela to Walter B. Jones, Richard Burr and Kay Hagan to Jon Jarvis, 04/29/10]
In 2015, Wyoming Governor Matt Mead criticized then-Grand Teton Supervisor Vela for the inadequate amount of time granted to review documents on the Moose-Wilson Corridor Plan, as well as his lack of communication regarding the plan. Vela and other NPS officials were summoned to meet with Mead on November 29th, 2015. Shortly afterwards, the public comment period regarding the plan had been extended from its initial end date of December 29th to January 30th, bringing the total public review and comment period to 93 days.
[Letter from Matt Mead to David Vela, 09/11/15, Letter from Matt Mead to David Vela, 10/16/15, Angus M. Thuermer Jr., “Gov protests plan to limit Teton Park traffic,” WyoFile, “Comment Extended For Grand Teton National Park’s Moose-Wilson Corridor Plan,” National Parks Traveler, 12/08/15]
In 2008, when he was Southeast Regional Director of National Parks, Vela withheld emails requested as part of a FOIA request.
In October 2008, the Island Free Press submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to figure out why National Park Service meetings regarding the administration of Cape Hatteras National Seashore were being moved.
In response, David Vela, who at the time was the Regional Director of the National Park Service’s Southeast Region, said that he and Michael Stevens, attorney/advisor of the Office of the Regional Solicitor in Atlanta, GA were “withholding” 26 requested emails to or from individuals including NPS staff and Interior Department solicitors.
[Irene Nolan, “What you can and cannot find out about harassment of negotiated rulemaking committee,” Island Free Press, 12/05/08]
An Interior Inspector General report found that, from 2011 to 2014, a time period that included David Vela’s early tenure as the Superintendent at Grand Teton National Park, the park was improperly allowing government officials to use Brinkerhoff Lodge as a low or no-cost vacation spot.
David Vela became Superintendent of Grand Teton National Park in February 2014. The following year, in September 2015, the Interior Department Inspector General issued a report that found that between 2011 and 2014 Grand Teton officials were allowing government officials to use the Brinkerhoff Lodge in Grand Teton National Park as a low or no-cost vacation spot.
The report found that over this four-year period, “guests of the historic cabin near Jackson Lake Dam were billed just 15 percent of the time.”
The inspector general found that only 11 parties were billed, and a total of only $7,143 was collected. The report found that the federal government “would have collected nearly $29,000 in additional revenue were guests to the Brinkerhoff Lodge properly billed.”
[Mike Koshmri, “Teton park is scolded for Brinkerhoff abuse,” Jackson Hole News&Guide, 10/14/15]
Vela made some baffling comments about “both [historical] perspectives” of the civil war having “equal value,” during an interview about his efforts to attract more minorities to public parks.
In 2014, Vela was interviewed about the challenge of attracting minorities to public parks. As an example of successful efforts in that area, Vela cited a meeting that NPS held with the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Charleston NAACP to prepare for ceremonies commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War at Fort Sumter National Monument. Vela stated that NPS believed that “both perspectives were of equal value” and that the meeting between the two groups was to “let each community decide on their own how to celebrate” the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
[2012 Award Recipients, Clemson University, accessed 09/13/18, Brentin Mock, “To attract minorities, the national parks need some better ideas,” Grist, 04/02/14]