How Trump bent the National Park Service to do his bidding
By Mark Kaufman
For the first 100 years of the National Park Service’s existence, there has almost continually been an official director who leads the prestigious conservation agency. Now, that’s changed.
The Trump administration has never had anyone in the official position of director — which comes with authority, direction, and influence over the Park Service. It’s now almost certain there won’t be a Senate-confirmed director for the entirety of the administration’s first term.
Instead, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former oil industry lobbyist who helped weaken foundational environmental laws in the U.S., has maneuvered to have temporary or quasi-acting directors fill the post, even though federal law requires the president to nominate a director, who is then confirmed by the Senate. Last Friday, accomplished Park Service veteran David Vela, who was given the de facto title “director” though that wasn’t his official job, announced his retirement. Secretary Bernhardt replaced Vela with Margaret Everson, who has served as Bernhardt’s legal counsel for several conservation agencies, including the Park Service. But like her three predecessors, Everson is not the true director of the Park Service. She hasn’t been publicly scrutinized and confirmed by elected senators.
What does this all mean? Former Park Service leaders and legal experts agree that without a bonafide director, the Trump administration, specifically under Secretary Bernhardt, controls the National Park Service. The president’s office can manipulate or bend it to its whims.
The evidence is shockingly conspicuous. President Donald Trump said Monday that the hallowed ground of Gettysburg National Military Park is a serious contender for the president’s nomination speech at the modified Republican National Convention. On Independence Day weekend, President Trump essentially took over Mount Rushmore National Memorial for a bombastic air and fireworks show wherein he warned Americans of a “left-wing cultural revolution.” In June, federal police forcibly removed peaceful protestors with tear gas and rubber bullets from the area in and around Lafayette Park, a national historic landmark and public place, for the president’s photo-op with a bible. And in 2019, the Park Service used $2.5 million in fees paid by national park visitors to fund President Trump’s “Salute to America” celebration in the National Mall.
It’s critical to note that national parks do not exist as stages for politicians — they exist to conserve and remember the nation’s most significant places. It’s a mission. Yet, there’s no permanent director to keep the Trump administration’s political ambitions at bay. It appears that’s precisely the plan.
“It’s pure politics,” said Phil Francis, who worked as a ranger, administrator, and superintendent for the Park Service for over 40 years. Francis retired in 2013.
“Under the current leadership of politically appointed acting directors, there is no accountability, the mission is not defended, and the parks are used as mere stages for political theater or commodities for the profits of the private sector,” said Jon Jarvis, the former (and still the last) official director of the National Park Service. Jarvis retired his post in Jan. 2017.
A Park Service director could stand in Bernhardt’s way. Or, at least, a director could give the interior secretary trouble over a theatrical Republican nominating event at the Civil War battlefield where Abraham Lincoln gave his famous 272-word address amid the deadliest war in U.S. history. But the Trump administration can push aside an enfeebled Park Service.
“They don’t want a strong Park Service, they want a weak Park Service,” said Peter Jenkins, a senior counsel at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), an organization that probes improper or illegal government actions.
“Why would David Bernhardt want to give up his control?” asked Kristen Brengel, the senior vice president of government affairs at the National Parks Conservation Association, an organization that supports the national parks. “A Park Service director would only get in the way.”
Park Service directors, often having served the agency for decades, have real, invested interests in the National Park Service mission. A Senate confirmation, now explicitly required since 1996, helps ensure these nominees will herald the Park Service mission, to the benefit of current and future visitors.
“Gettysburg, Grand Canyon, and the Statue of Liberty are places and ideas, sites of conservation, preservation, history, remembering, inspiration and patriotism,” said Jarvis, the former director. “NPS directors see this enormous responsibility and guide the national parks and their programs to help the nation achieve its high ideals.”
“A Senate confirmation hearing of a director nominee calls out that commitment before our elected officials and the public, conferring an accountability,” added Jarvis.
In response to a question about why the Park Service hasn’t had a Senate-confirmed director for most of the Trump administration’s first term, the Department of Interior’s deputy press secretary, Conner Swanson, blamed the Senate. “The Senate never held a vote on the nomination,” Swanson wrote over email, referencing Vela’s 2019 nomination. “Some members of the Senate are determined to bring to a halt the important confirmation process. We would welcome a return to the regular confirmation process.” Swanson did not reply to a query about which senators are obstructing this usually benign nomination process.
The current Republican administration with a Republican-led Senate would likely have little trouble confirming a nominee for a Park Service director nominated by a Republican president, especially a respected, experienced one like Vela (though that ship has now sailed for him). “It’s pretty incredible to go an entire administration without a Senate-confirmed Park Service director,” said Brengel. “You would think it would be the easiest position to fill in the entire federal government.”
The Trump administration’s rotating cast of temporary Park Service leaders is at best manipulative, and at worst, illegal.
The Trump administration is using the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998to appoint these de factor directors. When the leader of a bureau leaves a post, this federal law allows an administration to choose that leader’s deputy (the person “second-in-command”) to temporarily fill the vacancy as an “acting officer.” Or, the administration can choose a senior official in the agency as an “acting officer.” Critically, the “acting” leader is then required to be confirmed by the Senate. (An “acting officer” can serve for a maximum of 210 days.)
“This hasn’t happened,” said PEER’s lawyer Jenkins. “It’s a pretty blatant violation of Congress’ intent.”
After the last Park Service director, Jon Jarvis, stepped down in 2017, his deputy took over as a legitimate acting director. This was all perfectly normal under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act. But then things changed.
The Trump administration’s first Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, named Paul Daniel Smith, a former Park Service superintendent, as an acting director in early 2018. This move was questionable, as Smith had previously let the billionaire owner of Washington’s NFL team chop down 130 trees on protected park land. Later, an Inspector General’s report concluded that Smith “… Inappropriately used his position to apply pressure and circumvent NPS procedures” on behalf of the wealthy NFL team owner.
Yet President Trump never actually nominated Smith for the job. Eventually, in Aug. 2018, the president nominated Yellowstone superintendent David Vela, a worthy Park Service veteran. But, strangely, Vela was never confirmed by the Senate. Instead, the new Interior Secretary, Bernhardt, gave Vela the job of deputy director and designated him the unofficial leader of the Park Service, someone who could exercise “the authority of the director,” according to a press release.
But Vela, for reasons that are his own, just announced his retirement. Now, a new de facto director, Margaret Everson, is at the helm. The Trump administration, then, continues to avoid giving someone the official, emboldened position with Senate approval. That’s unconstitutional.
“The president swore to abide by the Constitution,” said Jenkins, noting this means nominating acting directors so the Senate can vet and confirm such leaders, as is laid out in Article II Section 2 of the Constitution, and later codified in modern legislation like the Omnibus Parks and Public Lands Management Act of 1996 and the National Park Service Organic Act (Section 100302). But this confirmation hasn’t occurred for some two and a half years.
“Our public lands and resources are too valuable to be managed by low-level deputies who evaded Senate confirmation and do not qualify to be ‘acting’ Directors under the law,” Erik Molvar, the executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, an environmental watchdog organization, said in a statement in April. (The Western Watersheds Project and PEER recently sued Bernhardt and others for violating federal law, particularly the Federal Vacancies Reform Act and the U.S. Constitution.)
Acting directors don’t have to convince the Senate that they’ll uphold the Park Service mission and ensure these lands are protected and preserved for taxpayers and visitors — not for, say, political events. De facto directors can simply be a tool of the executive branch.
“[Senate confirmations] weed out fringe characters and get the public to know who these people are,” said Jenkins. “It’s part of the separation of powers. Trump has just neglected it.”
With the agency now contending with the worst pandemic in a century, it’s a sensible time to have a committed, permanent Park Service director providing leadership through this unstable, pathogenic period.
“This is the most unusual time,” said Francis, the former Park Service superintendent, who is now chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, an organization of current and former park employees. It would be particularly ideal if the director had considerable Park Service experience, he noted. The new acting director, Margaret Everson, is clearly an accomplished legal expert with some important natural resources experience. She has not, however, worked extensively for the Park Service. “Why on Earth would you appoint someone with limited Park Service experience to lead the country’s most popular agency?” asked Francis. “It looks like a purely political move.”
Morale among Park Service employees is now exceptionally low, explained Brengel, of the National Parks Conservation Association. “They need a leader to help them through tough times,” she said, particularly when there’s the looming threat of COVID-19 infections. These days, it’s not always safe to work in national parks.
Today, park visitors are not required to wear masks, yet masks are critical for protecting rangers from traveling visitors. “Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus — particularly when used universally within a community setting,” CDC Director Dr. Robert R. Redfield said in a statement.
Even in Alaska’s remote Katmai National Park and Preserve, where visitors don’t have to wear masks, rangers have been infected with the new coronavirus, requiring their evacuation from the far-off park.
In Francis’ four decades with the Park Service, he never experienced the agency in such a leaderless position. “There was nothing even close,” he said. “Hopefully there will never be another example like this.”
Posted to MASHABLE – 8-14-20