After leaving the job vacant for nearly 18 months, President Trump is expected to nominate the superintendent of Grand Teton National Park as the 19th director of the National Park Service, according to several sources familiar with the process.
David Vela, 57, the Grand Teton superintendent since 2014, has already been interviewed for the post at the White House. If nominated and confirmed, he would become the first Hispanic to lead the agency.
"I am deeply humbled by the rumors and speculation and, if true, would be honored to serve," Vela said this morning.
The Senate hasn’t voted on the Park Service director’s position since 2009, when Jonathan Jarvis won confirmation as President Obama’s NPS chief.
Asked about Vela this morning, Jarvis said, "He’s a gentleman in sort of the classic sense. And he has a deep, deep value set around diversity and has led some really great efforts around young people and getting them engaged in the parks. … I think he’d do a decent job."
Jeff Ruch, executive director of the nonprofit watchdog Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said Vela’s record suggests he won’t be a "change agent" for the Park Service.
"Despite all of the talk about the need to change the culture of the National Park Service, yet another NPS lifer is tapped to head this agency as it stumbles into its second century," Ruch said.
Since Jarvis’ departure in January 2017, Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have relied on a patchwork leadership team, including two acting NPS directors.
Michael Reynolds, currently the superintendent at Yosemite, filled the job until January, when he was replaced by P. Daniel Smith, the former superintendent at Colonial National Historical Park in Virginia. Smith is still the acting director.
The Trump administration has been under pressure to fill the slot, having been pressed most recently by Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).
The White House policy is not to comment on nominations until they’re formally announced. And even if Vela is nominated, there’s no guarantee he would get a quick Senate vote, with many Interior Department positions still vacant.
Sources said both Zinke and Smith met with Vela in recent weeks and signed off on his nomination. They’re awaiting approval from Trump, who would then send the nomination to the Senate.
The Park Service and Interior Department declined to comment.
"We don’t have any personnel announcements," NPS spokesman Jeremy Barnum said.
A graduate of Texas A&M University, Vela has a Bachelor of Science degree in recreation and parks and an extensive resume with the Park Service.
Before taking the job at Grand Teton four years ago, Vela worked at NPS’s Washington headquarters as associate director for workforce, relevancy and inclusion. In that position, he oversaw programs involving human resources, learning and development, equal opportunity, and youth.
He also served four years as director of the NPS Southeast Region, in charge of 66 national park sites in nine states, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
Vela started his NPS career in 1981 as a cooperative education student at San Antonio Missions National Historical Park in Texas, where he later became a park ranger.
Three years later, he moved to Appomattox Court House National Historical Park in Virginia as a supervisory park ranger. In 1986, he transferred to Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia as a district ranger.
Vela then left the Park Service in 1987, to serve as a special agent in the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General, conducting criminal investigations.
Vela also worked as special assistant for Hispanic affairs for the late Texas Rep. Mickey Leland (D) and as a federal investigator for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And in 1996, he became the director of the Texas child support program, supervising more than 70 field offices and 2,400 employees.
Vela returned to NPS in 1998 as superintendent of the Palo Alto Battlefield National Historic Site in Texas. Later, he worked as superintendent of the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park in Texas and then transferred in 2006 to the George Washington Memorial Parkway near Washington, D.C.
Throughout much of his career, Vela has focused on diversity issues. Among other things, he wants more minority visitors in the nation’s parks, and he has often said the NPS workforce needs to better "reflect the face of America."
Reporter Michael Doyle contributed.