PEER: Nobody Home at National Park Headquarters

What IF this was by design and part of the Trump administration’s plans from the beginning? I mean, what IF?

For Immediate Release: Tuesday, February 18, 2020
Contact: Peter Jenkins (202) 265-4189

Special Assistant a No-Show; Two-Thirds of Top Slots Vacant or Acting

Washington, DC — The hallways of the National Park Service Headquarters now open onto empty offices or those filled on a temporary basis. At the same time, a senior official has gone AWOL according to a new complaint filed with the Department of the Interior’s Inspector General (IG) by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

Two-thirds of the top NPS slots lack a permanent official — an unprecedented leadership vacuum. While the Trump White House is notably reluctant to submit nominations for Senate confirmation across the Executive agencies, many senior NPS vacancies are for positions that do not require Senate confirmation. Besides having neither a confirmed Park Service Director nor a nominee for that key job, currently –

• Ten of 15 Deputy, Assistant, and Associate NPS Director slots are entirely vacant or temporarily filled by an “acting” appointee;

• Several Superintendent positions at major parks, such as Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Grand Teton, also are filled by “actings” on an interim basis; and

• P. Daniel Smith, who was brought out of retirement in 2018 and given an NPS Deputy slot in which he “exercised the authority of the Director,” then was moved out of that slot last summer to serve as a teleworking special assistant, but he apparently has not been seen at NPS Headquarters since.

“The Park Service is suffering from a multi-billion-dollar maintenance deficit and it can ill afford high-salary ghost employees,” stated PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse. “Keeping so many leadership slots unfilled by permanent jobholders hobbles management and means that major decisions affecting our national parks are increasingly made by political appointees in the Interior Secretary’s office.”

The PEER complaint asks the IG to determine the whereabouts of Smith. He draws a top salary as a Special Assistant to the Director, but there is no confirmed or acting Director. One of the ironies involving P. Daniel Smith is that he appears to be in violation of a restrictive telework policy that was adopted under his aegis when he was still in NPS Headquarters.


See NPS’s 2/3rds leadership vacancies

Vacant, Director
David Vela, Deputy Director, exercising the authority of the Director
Lena McDowall, Deputy Director, Management and Administration
Shawn Benge, Acting Deputy Director, Operations
Vacant, Deputy Director, Congressional and External Relations
Chris Powell, Chief of Staff
Shane Compton, Associate Director, Chief Information Office
Vacant, Assistant Director, Communications
Joy Beasley, Acting Associate Director, Cultural Resources, Partnerships and Science
Tom Medema, Acting Associate Director, Interpretation, Education, and Volunteers
Charles Laudner, Assistant Director, Legislative and Congressional Affairs
Ray Sauvajot, Associate Director, Natural Resource Stewardship and Science
Mike Caldwell, Acting Associate Director, Park Planning, Facilities, and Lands
Reggie Chapple, Acting Assistant Director, Partnerships and Civic Engagement
Marlon Taubenheim, Acting Associate Director, Workforce and Inclusion
Vacant, Associate Director, Business Services
Louis Rowe, Acting Associate Director, Visitor and Resource Protection

Read PEER’s complaint on Smith filed with Interior IG

Look at checkered history of Danny Smith

10 thoughts on “PEER: Nobody Home at National Park Headquarters”

  1. Just being logical here, if positions are unfilled, then isn’t money being saved (that is scarce financial resources?)

    What exactly is the “leadership” exercised by an Assistant Director of Communications or an Associate Director of Business Services.

    And why is it wrong to “bring someone out of retirement” and let them telework? I’d consider doing it….

    In general, I’ve had my run of good and bad political appointees, and I’d rather not have one, than take the risk of getting a bad one. Career feds are perfectly capable of exercising whatever leadership is necessary, in my book. It’s great to have a useful political who is trusted by higher ups and is successful at pleading the agency’s case to them.. but it’s not so useful to have one trying to impose political agendas or who seems to be convinced that the career folks are curmudgeonly obstacles to getting their visions of Goodness, Truth and Beauty implemented (this works for both parties).

    • I concur with your assessment of “good” and “bad” appointees. What makes it difficult for natural resource-related agencies is that their goals/objectives are long-term ( ie, decades in the making); political appointees have one presidential term (sometimes more, sometimes less) to make a difference and leave their legacy. That clash of timeframes to make a difference can lead to agency officials/employees evaluating whether a political appointee is “good” or “bad”.

      • Yes, Tony, “good” or “bad” is probably too strong. Perhaps “more annoying” and “less annoying” would be better. And, of course agency, employees align with one political party (mostly) or another, so may be more/less enthused about any “leadership.”

  2. Another possibility – maybe those in this administration who would have to spend time filling these positions just don’t care much about the national parks (they’re not a priority). That’s probably ultimately not a good thing – to have lots of freedom to spend the money you aren’t getting.

    • But the money they get depends on Congress, not the Administration. Given that the budget is x, and you have fewer appointees, that gives you more money to do other useful things.

      And the Park Superintendent thing… would we assume that if Forest Supe positions are empty it’s because the Administration doesn’t care about National Forests? Or would we choose to look at more proximate causes first.

      • I was guessing that these headquarters “director” positions have some responsibility for national program budgets and interacting with Congress on obtaining funding. But it turns out that Congress has been much more accommodating than the administration (increasing the NPS budget last year):
        By the way, this author (at The Weather Company?) has the same premise I do about priorities for filling positions:
        “Since taking office in January 2017, President Trump has shown little interest in the NPS with its sprawling parks, historic battlefields and refreshing seashores. He didn’t nominate a director for the park service until early 2018 – and David Vela’s nomination was put to bed in December of that year without full Senate consideration.”

        • But Vela is exercising the authority of Director apparently, so what is the problem if he doesn’t go before the Senate? It sounds like the Admin is happy with a career guy.
          “A 28-year career veteran of the National Park Service, David Vela serves as deputy director, exercising the authority of the director of the National Park Service. In this role he leads the more than 20,000 National Park Service employees who protect, preserve, and share America’s 419 national parks with the American people and who manage the NPS programs that help communities across the nation preserve local history and create close-to-home recreational opportunities.”
          Is showing an “anti-career” bias? Is Vela’s leadership somehow less than some random campaign donor or congressional staff person?

          • Other than potential low priority for funding, I think I could agree that not being something Trump is interested in is a good thing. (Sort of like the autonomy the Forest Service has from being in the Department of Agriculture, which tends to not be that interested in everything the FS is doing.)

            • Ahh. but the President proposes and Congress disposes.. and the Congress is fond of the Park Service.. what’s not to like? The Park Service also has plenty of lobbyists persuading Congressfolk for more funding.
              I can’t remember for sure but I don’t think agencies are allowed to lobby Congress. Of course, they have their own ways of not exactly doing that but getting the point across. And then there’s DOE, which gives $ to the National Labs to do it for them. Federal budget drama- so Byzantine and yet so important!

  3. The “friends of national parks” groups seem to have the same concerns as PEER:
    “Our national park rangers, and the American people, deserve nothing less than a fully empowered leader approved by Congress to perform his or her duties to ensure the protection and future of our national parks.” I think they have some credibility about what is ultimately good for the national parks.


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