MOOSE, WYO. — For the past two months, newly arrived Grand Teton National Park Superintendent David Vela has been meeting with staff, elected officials and community members to learn about a host of challenges he’ll likely be dealing with in the coming months.
That includes a range of natural resource issues like grizzly bear management, elk hunting in the park and river paddling. But as pressing as those matters are, Vela is looking to expand his priorities as superintendent to focus just as much on human resources.
The National Park Service must work harder to make its public lands more relevant to a more diverse range of citizens, Vela said during an interview at park headquarters last month.
The agency’s workforce also must “reflect the face of America,” Vela said. “We’re not there yet. We’re far from it.”
Vela, 53, began his Park Service career in 1981 and has served as superintendent at four other Park Service units, as well as a stint as a regional director over 66 national park sites in nine southeastern states, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
He most recently served in Washington, D.C. as associate director for Workforce, Relevancy and Inclusion, overseeing Park Service programs in learning and development, equal opportunity and other areas.
Vela said improving relevancy, diversity and inclusion at Grand Teton would be a central goal of his work as superintendent, along with figuring out how to recruit and retain a new generation of career Park Service employees who have different priorities from the baby boomers now moving toward retirement.
Millenials, for instance, are less likely to be focused on a decades-long career with the Park Service, and tend to reassess their jobs every few years. They’re also far more interested in access to the Internet and digital services, using social media in ways that older employees often don’t, he said.
“That is having a profound impact on how we recruit,” Vela said.
Vela grew up in the small town of Wharton, Texas, and first saw the Tetons when his family took a vacation to Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks in the 1960s.
“We were Latino country folk, so Yellowstone was foreign to us,” he said, and it was a “life-changing” trip that made him want to become a park ranger.
Now Vela wants to see that process repeated for other Latino and minority youths from across the country.
In September, partnering with the National Park Foundation, Grand Teton will host Latino bloggers from around the U.S. who will spend time in the park and write about their experiences.
Grand Teton will also continue its NPS Academy program, which started in the park and has since expanded to other Park Service units. Diverse college students studying everything from finance and engineering will spend spring break in Grand Teton working on a wide range of projects.
The idea is to expose young people from urban areas to national parks as a way to raise awareness among populations that might otherwise never visit such remote public lands.
“They can be anywhere for spring break, but they chose to be here. Then they go back home and they take this arrowhead into places we could never go,” Vela said, pointing to the Park Service logo.
Vela said he expects to have a close working relationship with Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk, who he described as a “dear friend.”
Cooperating and communicating with other land management agencies and local officials is also key, he said.
And while Vela has been learning a great deal about local perspectives on key issues, “this is a national park, and we will run it as a national park—we will preserve the values of it being a national park,” he said.
The relocation to Wyoming from Washington, D.C. is the 12th move in 34 years for Vela and his wife, Melissa, who have two grown children, Christina and Anthony, and four grandchildren. But it was an easy decision, he said.
“We are blessed to be here and excited about the opportunity,” he said. “I’m truly humbled at how welcoming this community has been.”
Besides his childhood trip to Grand Teton decades ago, Vela cites the connection his son has to the park after his son trained there as a law enforcement ranger and met his wife there.
“This is personal for us,” Vela said. “This place is home.”
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].