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National Parks chief exit sparks concerns over replacement

National Parks chief exit sparks concerns over replacement
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Acting National Park Service (NPS) Director David Vela is retiring, he announced Friday, leaving the job amid a lawsuit challenging the legality of his tenure in the post.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt announced Margaret Everson, a former Ducks Unlimited lobbyist who also worked at Interior under the George W. Bush administration, will take over Vela’s role after a stint advising Interior on Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) issues.

Vela is leaving in September after 30 years of service with NPS. The first Latino to rise to the highest ranks of NPS, he was well-liked by some conservation groups because of his experience within the department.

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But after initially being nominated by President TrumpDonald John TrumpMore than 300 military family members endorse Biden Five takeaways from the final Trump-Biden debate Biden: 'I would transition from the oil industry' MORE to serve as NPS director, his nomination languished and he was never confirmed.

Vela has served as acting director of NPS through a series of temporary orders — the same method Bernhardt used to place Everson in the role — which is being challenged in a lawsuit.

“I’m a little surprised there's been a change and concerned too that we no longer have a career National Park Service employee in place to represent the men and women of National Park Service and its values,” said Phil Francis, chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks who himself worked for NPS for 41 years before retiring.

Francis said he doesn’t know Everson but worries about the direction of NPS under the Trump administration, including the weakening of some hunting regulations, a suite of environmental regulations and efforts to give private companies more of a say in the management of parks.

“Privatizing campgrounds, changing franchise fee arrangements, rolling back [the National Environmental Policy Act] and air quality regulations, no emphasis on global climate change, not filling positions in a timely and permanent way,” Francis said. “There is a long list of issues that this administration has created and it all appears to be not so much to make the Park Service better or to protect parks but an effort to politicize the agency and to re-elect the president.”

Bernhardt thanked Vela for his service, saying “he has always been committed to the mission of the National Park Service.” He called Everson “a great leader who will provide a steady hand as this transition takes place.”

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The release from Interior describes Everson as a counselor to Bernhardt “supporting the NPS and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service."

The vacancies in Interior’s highest ranks, as well as the temporary orders used to keep various agencies running, has long been a sticking point with conservation and watchdog groups.

The lawsuit from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) challenging continued use of temporary orders to keep Vela in his post also included William Perry Pendley, the acting director of the Bureau of Land Management who was nominated to the role this summer after spending nearly a year in the role.

Because Vela was never confirmed, NPS has not had an official director since Trump took office.

“It looks like we’ll have gone the entire length of an administration without having a permanent director,” Francis said.

Updated at 10:13 p.m.