Park Service head retires; successor quickly named

The NPS has not had a director that the Senate has confirmed during the Trump administration

David Vela, a 30-year career NPS official who assumed the role of acting director of the agency in October. (DOI photo)
David Vela, a 30-year career NPS official who assumed the role of acting director of the agency in October. (DOI photo)
Posted August 7, 2020 at 6:05pm

The acting head of the National Park Service abruptly announced his retirement on Friday, vacating a role that a Senate-confirmed nominee has not held during the entire Trump administration.

David Vela, a 30-year career NPS official who assumed the role of acting director of the agency in October, will retire in September, the Interior Department said.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said Margaret Everson, principal deputy director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and an adviser to Bernhardt, immediately assumes the authority to lead the NPS. 

“It has been my honor to serve as the deputy director of the National Park Service,” Vela, who had previously been deputy director of operations, said in a statement. “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.”

The National Park Service manages 419 units of a park system nationwide, operates on a roughly $3 billion annual budget and employs about 20,000 people, including temporary and seasonal workers.

[After a year on job, public lands chief overdue for confirmation hearing, Democrats say]

Since assuming office, President Donald Trump has left many leadership and senior-level positions empty across federal agencies, including at the Interior Department, the parent department to the NPS.

The NPS has not had a director that the Senate has confirmed during the Trump administration. Other agencies that have not had Senate-approved leaders since the Obama administration include NOAA and the Bureau of Land Management.

Out of 757 key government jobs that need Senate confirmation, 136 have no nominee, according to a tally by The Washington Post and Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group.

Everson worked at Interior during the George W. Bush administration and as a lobbyist for Ducks Unlimited, based in Washington. Records show she worked for the conservation and hunting group as recently as the third quarter of 2018.

Seeking a hearing

Senate Democrats are clamoring for a nomination hearing for the acting head of the BLM, which oversees federal lands and the leasing of oil, gas and coal from those territories.

William Perry Pendley took the helm at BLM in the summer of 2019, but Trump only formally nominated him June 30.

“After nearly a year as Acting Director, Mr. Pendley’s formal nomination is long overdue, and the public deserves the opportunity to hold him accountable for his record of undermining our public lands,” nine Senate Democrats from Western states said in a July 21 letter to Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and the panel's top Democrat, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia. 

Murkowski has not scheduled a confirmation hearing for Pendley.

The nonpartisan advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, sued Pendley and Vela in May, arguing their appointments violated federal law and criticizing the department for allowing the temporary agency head to enact policies with potential long-term consequences.

Under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998, the president can choose temporary department heads as the administration searches for nominees for the Senate to confirm.

While that law allows an acting director to fill a position for only 210 days, Pendley has been in place for longer than that threshold.

Tim Whitehouse, the executive director of PEER, criticized the choice of Everson on Friday, calling the move part of an effort that lets Bernhardt hold sway over the sub-departments within Interior.

"She is part of a rotating cast of characters at the Interior [Department], that allow Bernhardt to maintain complete control over NPS,” Whitehouse said.

Interior Spokesman Ben Goldey did not reply when asked why the retirement announcement came from DOI headquarters instead of the NPS itself.

Phil Francis, chairman of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks and a former park superintendent, said he was concerned his former agency would not have a career worker at the top.

“David has always expressed his support and love for the green and gray,” Francis said of Vela by email. “For all that David has accomplished to support and promote the NPS and its mission, we offer him our gratitude."