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1 voice disputes praise for Vela

September 5, 2018

It was all accolades following the announcement Friday of David Vela’s nomination to lead the Trump administration’s National Park Service.

The Grand Teton National Park superintendent’s proposed promotion was cheered by Park Service advocacy groups, former boss Jon Jarvis, and even by the likes of State Treasurer Mark Gordon, the frontrunner to be Wyoming’s next governor.

But there was a pause in the applause this week, when a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog organization that represents federal whistleblowers sent word of its staunch disapproval.

“Every time we’ve encountered him, he seems to be gaming the system to the detriment of park resources,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “Maybe that’s why he was chosen.”

Ruch wrote a rebuke of the nomination and sent it Tuesday to U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, the chairwoman and ranking member of the Senate committee that will hold Vela’s confirmation hearings. He contended Vela was behind the largest rollback of wilderness eligibility in Park Service history while leading the agency’s Southeast Region. While at Teton park, Ruch argued, Vela kept the public in the dark while pushing through a cell tower infrastructure expansion and he has done nothing to handle the impact of record visitor numbers.

Vela has been unresponsive to interview requests.

Grand Teton National Park officials said they don’t have authority to provide access to their superintendent, and the U.S. Department of the Interior officials they deferred to have not responded to email requests.

Jarvis, the last permanent Park Service director, told the News&Guide on Friday he supports the appointment. Jarvis tapped Vela to lead Teton park four years ago, and also for his previous job leading the agency’s human resources department in Washington, D.C.

“David’s got some good bipartisan support out there,” Jarvis said. “I think he’s built good relationships with key members of Congress — which is really, really important — Sen. Barrasso and others who are going to be important to his confirmation process.”

Vela is a 28-year Park Service veteran, and he would be the first person of Hispanic descent to lead the agency, which has 417 units and 20,000 employees. He has made promoting diversity in the parks a hallmark of his career, a push that Jarvis expects to continue.

“I think that would be good for the service, it would be good for the government,” Jarvis said. “I think that will be something that David will continue to do, and probably leave a pretty strong legacy as director.”

Ruch said Vela shouldn’t wear Jarvis’ endorsement as a badge of honor.

“He’s been sort of a Jarvis guy,” Ruch said. “There’s been this inbred Park Service leadership that’s been there for a couple decades, and this appears to perpetuate it.”

Complacency in the upper echelons of the Park Service, Ruch said, has led to the erosion of its quality. He pointed to the 2016 centennial celebration of “America’s Best Idea” — a common Park Service moniker — which appeared to be “all celebratory” and lacked substantive introspection about how to face issues like overcrowding.

“It doesn’t look the golden age of National Park Service planning will dawn during a Director Vela’s tenure,” he said.

Other nongovernmental organizations that have worked with Vela took a fundamentally different tone when receiving the expected news of the nomination. Theresa Pierno, who presides over the National Parks Conservation Association, called him a “problem solver” who’s poised to address threats from development, air and water pollution, climate change and record visitation.

“We look forward to the timely confirmation of David Vela as National Park Service Director,” Peirno said in a statement, “and all of the important work ahead to ensure the protection and future of our national parks.”

An Interior Department statement Friday included nine similar prepared statements from prominent figures who supported a Vela directorship.

“David Vela understands the challenges facing our national parks and the power of working with partners to address them,” National Park Foundation President Will Shafroth said.

Leslie Mattson, president of the Grand Teton National Park Foundation, said Vela has been a “wonderful partner.”

“He is an extraordinary leader whose passion and commitment will ensure his success as the next director of the National Park Service,” Mattson said in the prepared remarks.

Larry Rockefeller, an heir of the family pivotal to Grand Teton’s existence, said Vela’s nomination for director should be a “nationally unifying one, which all Americans can praise.”

“In that spirit,” Rockefeller said, “I sense the delight of my late grandfather, John D. Rockefeller Jr., and father, Laurance S. Rockefeller, that our extraordinary national parks legacy will be upheld by Director Vela, for all present and future generations.”

Vela, originally from Wharton, Texas, has checked many of the boxes that Park Service directors customarily mark off on their way to the top. Before coming to Grand Teton in 2014 he directed workforce, relevancy and inclusion out of Washington, D.C. Before that he was a regional director for four years.

“He’s built a good portfolio that gives him a broad range of skills, and there have been no screw-ups along the way,” Jarvis said. “That gets you in.”

Ruch didn’t buy it. The sexual harassment scandals that have plagued the Park Service were brewing when Vela was in charge of nationwide personnel issues, he said.

“It erupted in the sense that it became publicly known, but most of this was going on while he was there,” Ruch said. “I’m not saying that he was the cause of it, but it doesn’t suggest that he would be the person who could turn things around.”

Ruch’s opposition letter is attached to this story at JHNewsAndGuide.com.

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