On August 31, 2018, President Donald Trump named Raymond David Vela as his pick for the 19th director of the National Park Service (NPS). If confirmed, the 28-year career veteran of the NPS would take on the responsibility of overseeing the 417 units within the National Park System, which faces a nearly $12 billion deferred maintenance backlog, as well as issues of overcrowding and a lack of diversity.
Vela’s nomination came as a welcome piece of news for many national park advocates. His peers describe him as an empathetic leader with a knack for finding creative solutions to challenging problems. As the current superintendent of Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, he recently assisted with protecting a piece of land called Antelope Flats by working with the National Park Foundation to raise $23 million in private funding. He also has a reputation for supporting diversity and inclusion within the parks, according to his peers.
“[Vela] is the right guy at the right time,” said Will Shafroth, president and CEO of the National Park Foundation. Shafroth has worked with Vela in a variety of situations over the past 10 years, including on the Antelope Flats project. “He has a steady hand and good judgment. One of the challenges of the national parks is that many people have passionate views about what should happen, and you have to manage all those diverse interests. He’s good at listening and coming up with forthright, creative solutions under the microscope.”
When the NPS tapped Vela to lead Grand Teton National Park in 2014, then-Intermountain Regional Director Sue Masica pointed to his “extensive and proven record of achievement in managing large and complex park operations.” She added in her statement: “He has also had great success in working with partners and local communities, and he is especially passionate about making our national parks more relevant to diverse populations.”
Prior to overseeing Grand Teton National Park, Vela served as associate director for Workforce, Relevancy and Inclusion at the NPS headquarters in Washington, D.C., and as the director of the NPS Southeast Region, among other roles. If Congress signs off on the nomination, Vela will become the first Hispanic American director of the park service.
Vela was nominated for the NPS director position largely because of his deep experience with the NPS, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said in a statement. And he’ll need all the experience he can get, as running the National Park System is no easy task: The role includes overseeing more than 400 park units, over 20,000 workers and a proposed $3.2 billion budget for fiscal year 2019. Jonathan Jarvis, President Obama’s pick for NPS director, served in the role until January 2017, but the post has been vacant for the last 20 months, with Dan Smith serving as deputy director.
If Vela becomes the director, he will inherit a nearly $12 billion maintenance backlog. This backlog, which includes much-needed maintenance on roads, buildings, utility systems and other structures in dozens of parks, can cause major aesthetic, functional and safety problems for the NPS. More than half of the backlog involves the park service’s 5,500 miles of paved roads and other transportation structures like bridges. Lawmakers recently proposed a bipartisan effort to use revenue from energy production under the Interior Department to cut down on that backlog, but it is still a fairly daunting problem.
Vela will also inherit diversity and inclusion challenges, including rampant harassment and discrimination allegations and questions of how to improve park access for minority communities. Peers like Shafroth hope Vela’s previous position on the Workforce, Relevancy and Inclusion team prepared him well for such disputes.
“He understands issues of access in his heart,” Shafroth said. “He has always been a champion of diversity efforts and I think he’d bring a unique, impassioned perspective to this issue.”
Finally, Vela may face challenges with overcrowding in the park system. Since 2013, visitation rates have trended upward, according to park service data. (In 2017, more than 330 million people visited America’s national parks, just shy of 2016’s record-breaking year by around 90,000 visits.) Although some might consider this a good problem to have, many parks are struggling to manage this overflow of visitors: If our largest national parks experience even 1 million new visitors every summer, according to Shafroth, they will struggle to keep their facilities well maintained with the same staffing numbers as before the increase.
Daunting as they may seem, Vela appears well suited to tackle these problems. “It’s clear David Vela understands the challenges facing our national parks and the power of working with diverse stakeholders to address them,” REI’s Federal Government Affairs Manager Taldi Walter said. “His work at Grand Teton National Park with multiple partners to ensure the acquisition of Antelope Flats is just one example. If confirmed, REI looks forward to working with Vela to address the maintenance backlog and ensuring our national parks are accessible and welcoming for all visitors.”