Grand Canyon abolishes river district in response to sexual harassment allegations

The abrupt decision leaves the future of NPS river management up in the air.

 

Late in the afternoon on March 16, every phone of every employee in Grand Canyon National Park rang. It was a recorded message from Superintendent David Uberuaga, announcing that the River District was abolished, effective immediately.

The decision to get rid of the River District was a response to the Department of the Interior’s Office of the Inspector General report released earlier this year, which documented Grand Canyon’s 15-year failure to address sexual harassment of female federal employees who worked on the river. The investigation found the women were repeatedly propositioned for sex, harassed by male boatmen and supervisors and retaliated against after reporting incidents to management. The OIG report also stated that administrators at NPS were aware of these issues, but failed to take action for years. 

Boats pass below a bridge on the Colorado River in Grand Canyon National Park.

In the email transcript of the call that was sent to employees, Uberuaga said that the OIG findings “shattered the public trust bestowed upon us as federal employees,” and that he takes “full responsibility for the situation the park finds itself in and … accept that over time, a culture was tolerated that allowed sexual harassment and created a hostile work environment.” To rebuild trust, he said he would take “decisive actions that demonstrate that we take such matters outlined in the OIG report seriously.”

[If you are a federal public land employee and would like to report your own experience with harassment, please fill out our tip form.]

Uberuaga dissolved the district to have a fresh start and review of its mission and responsibilities, says James Doyle, spokesman for the Park Service. The district's six employees will be placed in other areas of the park. “We’re not eliminating anybody’s positions,” Doyle added. This decision has raised concerns for many members of the river community because one of the four men accused of sexual harassment by 13 complainants and 22 other witnesses in the OIG investigation is still working at the park.

Several former and current employees have told High Country News they wonder what abolishing the River District does for fixing the culture if an alleged perpetrator is still employed. “I want to remain hopeful that it’s on the right track, but I am concerned with there potentially not being accountability,” said one woman, a former park employee and complainant in the OIG investigation who wishes to remain anonymous for her safety. “That makes me nervous.”

It’s unclear if Sue Masica, Intermountain Regional Director, knew about Uberuaga’s plan. Doyle said she “may have” been aware of it beforehand, but superintendents do have the authority to make these types of staffing decisions.

This all occurred three days before Masica visited the park as part of her response to the OIG report. After the visit, she sent an email to Grand Canyon employees expressing her commitment to fixing the park’s culture. In it, she mentioned some of the most echoed sentiments from employees, which included concerns about a culture of fear and retaliation, inequitable treatment and a lack of trust and communication with administration. She also wrote that many people were concerned about the River District abolishment, and they said “not knowing what the park is moving toward and how important work will be accomplished is unsettling.” Masica’s letter did not mention disciplinary action for the accused sexual harassers and supervisors on duty when the incidents occurred.

For now, NPS-run scientific research and trail maintenance trips are on hold across the entire park. According to the agency, resource management and other work trips may be contracted out as needed from now on. However, since the river unit is disbanded and the boat shop doors are closing, it means NPS boatmen will be placed in new jobs, spread out throughout the park.

There will still be employees patrolling the canyon, though not under the umbrella of the old river district. The district, which has been around since the 1970s, was responsible for administration and resource protection of the 280 miles of the Colorado River in Grand Canyon National Park. River rangers ran emergency rescue and wilderness first aid services on the river. Rangers also monitored campsites, trails and artifacts down in the canyon, ensuring that NPS property wasn’t damaged. Since the district was abolished, these duties will still be fulfilled, but it's unclear how and if they will be restructured. 

“We will still be able to function safely,” Doyle says. Though one former river ranger, who requested that his name not be used in this article, is concerned that with a restructuring of the district, it will take longer for them to respond to emergencies.

Abolishing the River District strips NPS of many of its responsibilities on the river, which some local river guides say puts more pressure on commercial outfitters this season. Rafting trips run year-round, but the popular season kicks off on April 2, when the Grand Canyon River Guides Association hosts its annual guides training seminar and rafting trip from Marble Canyon to bring together river guides from around the region. Usually, it’s a celebration for the river community, but this year, it’s also shrouded in concern about the investigation.

Earlier this month, Lynn Hamilton, executive director of the association, decided to remove a River District supervisor from the event's agenda. “It would not have been appropriate to have him speak,” Hamilton says. “There will be people there that would be uncomfortable with it, and clearly we are on the side of all of the victims that have been so grossly affected in this horrible way, and for decades, no less.” However, Uberuaga is still slated to speak to the group of 200 people — his first public appearance since the OIG report was released in January. “The park will be asked questions and they will need to answer them,” Hamilton says. 

It’s not yet clear if abolishing the district is an action just meant to save face, or if it’s the first step in a larger plan for NPS to address sexual harassment issues. The agency is staying tight-lipped about its next steps. The former river ranger says many Grand Canyon employees are concerned and frustrated about the ripple effects of demolishing the district and punishing employees who weren’t involved. “It’s like burning the whole house down when you find roaches in the kitchen,” he says. 

Lyndsey Gilpin is an editorial intern at High Country News. She tweets