David Vela Sails Through Senate Confirmation Hearing To Become NPS Director

David Vela Sails Through Senate Confirmation Hearing To Become National Park Service Director


From National Parks Traveler

By Kurt Repanshek on November 15th, 2018

Grand Teton Superintendent David Vela encountered few tough questions Thursday during his confirmation hearing to become director of the National Park Service/NPS

David Vela encountered little turbulence Thursday during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, pledging to set the standard for accountability and transparency as director of the National Park Service.

On issues ranging from sexual misconduct and other forms of harassment to addressing the nearly $12 billion backlog of maintenance needs across the National Park System, Vela, currently Grand Teton National Park's superintendent, essentially said the buck stops with him.

"I think it starts with the individual, and if confirmed, setting the example as director, setting the bar as to what is not acceptable," Vela replied when U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, pointed to ethical transgressions in the Interior Department, singling out ongoing investigations into Secretary Ryan Zinke's behavior, and asked what he would change to deal with "this spree of unethical behavior" if confirmed.

"It starts at the top. If confirmed I will provide that leadership," added Vela.

Sen. Wyden was not satisifed, though, saying he couldn't support the nomination unless Vela specifically addressed how he would change what the senator viewed as lackluster regard for ethical behavior.

If confirmed, Vela would become the first Latino to rise to the directorship of the Park Service. He was nominated for the director's job on August 31. Before becoming superintendent at Grand Teton in 2014, Vela worked in Washington, D.C., as the Park Service's associate director for Workforce, Relevancy and Inclusion. He oversaw NPS programs including Human Resources, Learning and Development, Equal Opportunity, Youth, and the Office of Relevancy, Diversity & Inclusion. Prior to that, he was director of the agency's Southeast Region based in Atlanta.

Vela, should the Senate confirm him, will take the reins of an agency that has been struggling with a staggering deferred maintenance backlog, and low morale among a workforce that has grappled with sexual harassment issues, low pay, work-life balance inequity, concerns over leadership, and concerns around strategic management, according to the 2017 Best Places To Work survey.

During the two-hour hearing, which Vela shared with nominees for the Assistant Secretary of Energy (Nuclear Energy) and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Park Service veteran encountered few tough questions outside of workplace misconduct.

He was not asked about Secretary Zinke's push for more lenient hunting and trapping regulations in national preserves in Alaska, about carrying capacities for visitation in crowded parks, about President Trump's proposed cuts in manpower and budget for the Park Service, or whether, as then-director of the Park Service's Southeast Region, he worked with Pedro Ramos, at the time superintendent of Big Cypress, to try to persuade then-NPS Director Jon Jarvis to waive a section of the National Park Service's Management Policies pertaining to wilderness-quality landscapes so they could allow ORV use in 147,000 acres that were added to Big Cypress in 1996.

Vela did say he believed in climate science, voiced support for the Restore Our Parks Act legislation before Congress that could provide up to $6.5 billion to address the park system's maintenance backlog, for continuation of the Land and Water Conservation Fund that expired at the end of September, and was open to discussing a redesignation of New River Gorge National River as New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, with the "preserve" added to allow continued hunting in the unit. 

He did balk a bit when Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said more units of the park system should charge entrance fees. Currently, just 115 of the 418 units charge the fees.

“I think fees play a role and I think what we need to do as we tackle the challenges … that we need to take a hard look at all options," said Vela. "But at the same time, and in the same breath, we need to take a look at who we might be excluding from the process, who don’t have the ability to pay additional fees. So I think those interests are equally compelling and equally important.”

The nomination is expected to go before the full Senate before year's end.