Grand Canyon park’s 15-year failure on sexual harassment

Interior Department investigation shows a history of harassment, hostility and retaliation.

 

In August 2012, a Grand Canyon National Park employee reported to her supervisor the unwanted sexual advances of a boatman on the Colorado River. The boatman, she said, had continually pursued her with unwelcome advances and had eventually, somewhere down in the canyon, attempted to force himself on her.

When Michelle Kearney, who had just resigned as a federal river ranger in the park, learned of the woman’s report, it struck a nerve. It was almost identical to things she had experienced on multiple occasions during her three years at Grand Canyon: same language, same tactics, same people, and same mishandling of the case by park officials, including victim blaming and retaliation.

“When you go through it, you can put up with a lot,” Kearney says. “But when you witness it happening to another person, you can’t.”

A boat floats down the Colorado River in Grand Canyon National Park.
Mark Lellouch/ National Park Service

So in June 2013, Kearney blew the whistle. She sent a 29-page letter to Bill Wright, chief ranger at the park, documenting egregious violations of National Park Service policy, sexual harassment by agency boatmen and supervisors, as well as other ethical violations and misuse of government funds. Her report led to an investigation by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which ended around October 2013. The commission issued a report to Superintendent David Uberuaga, who oversees park management, when it was completed. Then, in a fact perhaps more telling than even the testimonies by multiple women at Grand Canyon, the EEO report disappeared. Several employees said they were interviewed by the EEOC for the investigation, but after three to four months, heard nothing else from administrators about the findings.

A report released by the Department of Interior’s Office of Inspector General earlier this month elucidates the missing EEO report, documenting that Uberuaga said he “closely guarded” it and that he “confirmed that he did not provide the report to HR or GRCA managers, and did not request HR personnel’s opinions about potential disciplinary action against the employees named in the report.”

(All requests for comment on this article were directed to Park Service spokesman James Doyle. Doyle says the service is “addressing ways to make sure the established rules and regulations are adhered to.”)

The OIG report said women provided “evidence of discrimination, retaliation, and a sexually hostile work environment” committed by a handful of boatmen and supervisors, all River District employees at the Grand Canyon, over a 15-year period. The report, which found a “long-term pattern of sexual harassment and hostile work environment,” has increased scrutiny of the Park Service’s Grand Canyon office, its leadership, its employees, and its institutional culture, which does little to encourage accountability in positions of power seemingly designed to help federal employees ease into retirement with the highest salaries they can get.  

“It was a systemic failure at every level as you move up the chain of command,” Kearney says.  

[Editor’s note: report your own experience with harassment as a federal public land employee.]

Grand Canyon is one of the crown jewels of the national park system. In 2015, more than 5 million people visited the park, which spans 1.2 million acres and employs more than 400 people, including, but not limited to, rangers, scientific researchers, and guides. Grand Canyon National Park also manages 277 miles of the Colorado River through its popular River District, which runs NPS river trips and works with commercial rafting companies.

In many ways, Grand Canyon is its own private city, one that extends a mile into the Earth, a geographic reality that contributes to a serious disconnect between what happens on the river, deep in the canyon, and what is relayed in the visitor’s center, the regional office, and the Department of the Interior’s offices in Denver and Washington.

Park Service employees take about 12 trips a year down the river for scientific research, education, and trail maintenance. The trips range from a few days to a few weeks and are led by “boatmen,” seasoned river guides who are either employed full-time or contracted through NPS and well-respected by park administrators. Superintendents, regional and national executives take trips with their families, politicians and celebrities, their trips guided by the handful of boatmen accused of sexual harassment, according to three complainants that requested the investigation, which does not name the boatmen or their accusers.

The NPS river guide, in other words, is a powerful position. “Everyone loves their river guide,” Kearney says. That has allowed a culture of victim-blaming to perpetuate when the sexual harassment issues were raised.

For years, women have experienced verbal and sexual harassment, such as crude language, comments on clothes or physical attributes, unnecessary touching, demeaning names, and unwanted nudity by specific boatmen and supervisors. The harassment they face is made much worse, employees say, by supervisors and park officials.

Since the 2000s, the Ranger District of the Grand Canyon has retained law enforcement jurisdiction over the River District. That created a tight-knit community of supervisors, rangers, and boatmen and “concentrated a lot of power in the hands of people who were not high in management,” says Dan Hall. He has been an intermittent boatman for more than 10 years at the Grand Canyon and was the only man among the 13 complainants who requested the OIG investigation.

These boatmen and supervisors are often considered heroes, and nobody, especially managers and executives, wanted to believe they were capable of harassment and abuse, Hall says. “There was a definite sense of fear of losing them.”

The inspector general investigation began in October 2014, after Kearney, Hall, and the other current and former Grand Canyon employees wrote a letter of complaint and request for investigation to Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell. They reported “horrendous working conditions” and fear of retribution by supervisors for reporting civil rights abuses.

The complainants attached individual, detailed accounts of victimization and abuse by fellow park employees while working on projects in the River District. One woman said a boatman took photos underneath her dress during a 2005 trip. Another said that on a trip that same year, a boatman yelled at her while holding an axe when he was intoxicated. There were multiple reports of inappropriate touching, repeated propositions for unwanted sex, and requests for massages. Some women reported one or two instances of harassment. Others reported up to 30. All 13 included their full names, addresses, phone numbers, and the names of the men who harassed them. The group sent copies to Arizona Sen. John McCain and state Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, urging them to also contact Secretary Jewell. Then they sent a copy to Uberuaga.

The women thought their 2014 written statements and letter to Jewell were confidential, their names protected. However, during the inspector general’s investigation, Diane Chalfant, deputy superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park, shared these documents with the chief ranger and a supervisory ranger at the park who had no need to review the materials. She later told investigators she thought they were public documents. In what is, at best, another example of poor judgment, one of the rangers provided copies of the 13 statements and request for investigation to his employees, a river patrol supervisor and a small-craft operator — both of whom were named as suspects in the declarations. Requests for comment from Chalfant were directed to park spokesman Doyle.

“It’s horrifying, it’s so appalling,” Kearney says. “It’s your worst nightmare when you come forward as a victim.”

A biologist who worked at the Grand Canyon for 10 years, who took part in the investigation and requested anonymity, said she had no idea Chalfant released the document until the recent OIG official report was published, so she was unaware that her personal safety and the safety of other participants was compromised.

The breach of confidentiality wasn’t much of a surprise to employees. Four former Grand Canyon employees, three who were part of the group that sent the letter to Jewell, spoke to High Country News about their experiences at the park. Another veteran river guide familiar with the culture at Grand Canyon and on river trips described similar practices and also requested anonymity.

The Grand Canyon has a history of sexual harassment, particularly in the River District, and fair disciplinary or administrative action is not often taken. According to the OIG report, 10 randomly selected employees were interviewed for the investigation, and “most had little faith that [Grand Canyon] management would address misconduct thoroughly and fairly. 

Uberuaga, Chalfant, and current Intermountain Regional Director Susan Masica all told investigators they were aware of the harassment and hostility faced by female employees. Masica told investigators that she knew the history of sexual misconduct at the Grand Canyon before she took office, and that the park “appeared to have more sexual harassment complaints than other NPS parks.”

Adding to Grand Canyon’s potential problems is the rotating-door aspect of its top positions. The NPS retirement package includes something called the “High-3” rule, which means federal employees who have served at least three consecutive years of service have their salaries averaged over the highest three years of pay. For most, High-3 comes from their last three years of service.

The Grand Canyon superintendent position is one of the highest-paying jobs in the National Park Service. For that reason, it’s one place long-term Park Service officials aim to reach before they retire.

“There’s a line of people waiting to get into [the superintendent] position, so they’ve got that last notch before they retire,” Hall says. “There’s a lot of political pressure to move people in and out of positions.”

The two superintendents before Uberuaga, Joe Alston and Steve Martin — who both served during the 15-year period described in the OIG report — retired after relatively short stints at the park, so their payout comes from their superintendent salaries. Uberuaga, instated in 2011, had 37 years of federal service under his belt when he arrived. Requests for comment from Uberuaga were also directed to park spokesman Doyle.

Management that perpetuated a culture of retaliation and victim-blaming was a large part of the 13 employee declarations. One of the main incidents documented in the OIG report was a February 2014 river trip where two female employees were disciplined after sexual misconduct complaints. At a party, one boatman and two other employees reported them for “twerking” and drinking out of a penis-shaped straw, which eventually led supervisors to not renew the women’s contracts. The OIG investigation found that supervisors did not investigate the incident thoroughly.

Hall says employees of the park immediately saw it as retaliation for the 2013 EEO investigation and for previous sexual harassment complaints by the employees.

This behavior was also geared toward men working in the River District who reported incidents they witnessed, Hall says. A select few NPS boatmen had the power to make sure certain guides didn’t get to work certain trips by swaying GRCA executives. According to several employees, these popular boatmen and supervisors were the primary link between upper management and what happened on the river, so their authority wasn’t often questioned.

“Over the years, everybody realized none of the complaints were being taken seriously and these guys were just passively assumed they were to be believed and women were not,” Hall says.

When the 2014 trip occurred, more employees realized how much more serious the problem had gotten. It was no longer just harassing women, causing them to resign. These men had started targeting specific women’s jobs. “All of this [retaliation] is why I left,” the biologist says.

NPS policy states that when an employee reports sexual harassment, supervisors will work with the EEOC to investigate the matter, and corrective actions are to be taken immediately to stop the behavior and make sure the injured party isn’t retaliated against. However, the OIG investigation found that confidentiality breaches and inconsistencies in case handling had become the norm at Grand Canyon.

When employees reported incidents to supervisors and park service law enforcement, some cases were investigated by the river unit and its rangers, with a few resulting in disciplinary action such as written reprimand or suspension. Other times, the cases were discussed freely among rangers and supervisors and never properly looked into, complainants said.

“It creates this nebulous world where you have no idea what happens or what consequences there are, so there’s a tremendous amount of uncertainty,” the biologist says.

During the 2013 EEO investigation, the biologist spoke to a division chief at the park who “explicitly said she thought this investigation was actually going to make a difference.” When nothing ever came of it, “we knew that it needed to go to a much higher level,” she says. “It couldn’t go to the park. We needed a full-blown investigation.”

In their complaint to Jewell, the 13 complainants cited specific incidents of harassment, assault, and retaliation dating back to 2003. Twenty-two other people that worked at the park came forward to report experiencing or witnessing sexual harassment throughout the 15-year period. Women said they faced discrimination, were propositioned for sex, inappropriately touched, and verbally and sexually assaulted while on river trips managed by NPS. When they reported the incidents, they were kept from their project sites or had their work sabotaged by supervisors and lead boatmen.

Not long after the OIG investigation began, in May 2014, Grand Canyon management mandated pre-trip briefings for all NPS river employees (though not for commercial rafting companies or self-guided tours, which have their own host of sexual harassment problems), and alcohol use was restricted on trips. In early 2015, the Park Service banned alcohol consumption on all its river trips.

Disciplinary action for three boatmen was taken in three cases, and one boatman was never disciplined, according to the OIG report. Since 2003, Grand Canyon’s response to the sexual harassment claims, its investigations, and its disciplinary responses have been inconsistent.

“In this case, if Secretary Jewell or someone in her staff had not taken matters into their hands, I doubt the inspector general would have done anything,” says Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, which has investigated various National Forest Service and Park Service employee misconduct cases in recent years, including several investigations that have reached National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis.

The Park Service has until February 14, 2016 to respond to the inspector general’s report, including a response to Chalfant’s confidentiality breach. 

Some of the women involved in the investigation now have active lawsuits with the EEOC. Others have distanced themselves from it all. But Kearney and the biologist both said a handful of the 13 continue to discuss the abuses publicly because although they support the lawsuits, they don’t believe the park will hold the boatmen and supervisors accountable for their actions. Besides the two official investigations, no one at NPS has ever contacted them to ask questions, clarify details, or apologize for the incidents, Kearney says, and her letter to the superintendent prior to the OIG investigation was only met with an automated return email thanking her for contacting him.

 “You have to expect better from federal agencies,” Kearney says. “There has to be some reform at a bigger level. This isn’t some fraternity behavior to put a Band-Aid on.” 

Update: On Wednesday, February 17, the Intermountain Region of NPS quietly released a response to the OIG investigation into sexual harassment in the River District of the Grand Canyon. The six-page document, written by regional director Sue Masica, addressed personnel, training, and management issues. She vowed to improve conditions by performing reference checks on employees, requiring more comprehensive sexual harassment training, investigating the missing EEO report, and removing an accused individual from the River District, where he is still employed.  

"While dismayed at the work environment described in the report, I am committed to working to change the situation and keep similar situations from happening again,” Masica wrote in the report. The deadlines for the various implementations range from April to October 2016.

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