How we investigated the National Park Service’s history of sexual harassment

A methodology of our yearlong series about how the agency treats women.

 

In February 2016, just a few days after High Country News published a story about a federal investigation that found Grand Canyon National Park had a pattern of sexual harassment and hostility towards women, we put up a tip form on our website. The goal was to understand the scope of the problem within the National Park Service and to see if it extended to other public land agencies, so we called for any federal public land employees who had experienced sexual harassment, gender discrimination, or sexual assault to contact us.

Haven’t read the feature story yet? Check it out here

Within the month, the number of tips hit double digits. The stories were from women and men, both young and old. They were current and former employees, ranging from superintendents and high-level supervisors, to rangers and scientists, to interns and seasonal employees. Some women described discriminatory language or being passed over for promotions – stories they kept hidden for decades. Others talked about being touched inappropriately, propositioned for sex, stalked, threatened, yelled at, condescended, and regional directors and park superintendents pushed back when they tried to get sexual assaults investigated or defended their female colleagues against misogyny.

This is a photo composite of a woman who reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment or abuse in the Park Service and the park where she worked at the time.
Photos: Laura Camden, Stuart Seegar; Photo Illustration: Brooke Warren

Overwhelmingly, women said they felt if they reported these incidents, they would be overlooked, ignored or doubted. There was also a fear of retaliation, and women reported they were retaliated against for reporting problems to their supervisor or filing complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). For instance, women in the River District of the Grand Canyon said they weren’t given proper training; women in Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana said they were given poor reviews; women in Yosemite reported being isolated for speaking out.

After seeing patterns in the reports, HCN uncovered the systemic problems within the National Park Service that ultimately fails to protect its female employees. The project took nearly a year to investigate, involved multiple Freedom of Information Act requests, extensive face-to-face and phone interviews and analysis of Park Service and EEO data as well as the tips HCN received.

The investigation

In our series, “A legacy of harassment,” we wrote stories throughout the Park Service’s centennial year about its response to sexual harassment allegations. After the Grand Canyon investigation, the park abolished the River District, the agency promised a survey to determine how widespread the problem was and the Grand Canyon superintendent retired. Then, more allegations began coming out: sexual harassment in Florida’s Canaveral National Seashore, gender discrimination in Yosemite, allegedly by the former superintendent Don Neubacher, sexual exploitation in Yellowstone, and sexual harassment in Georgia’s Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area.

Members of Congress began to take an interest in this pattern. In June, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform grilled Director Jon Jarvis on how he handled the situation, and the Park Service’s lack of accountability for accused harassers and park leaders. Some even called for him to resign. In May, HCN published a story about an agency-wide survey of female law enforcement officers and U.S. Park Police in 2000, after women working in the Grand Canyon reported discrimination and harassment. HCN was the first to report that the Park Service has long been aware of these problems. Using documents we obtained, in August the committee called for more information on a gender discrimination investigation from 2000 at Grand Canyon National Park and chided the agency for having similar problems 16 years later.

In August, I received a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism to write a cover story for HCN on sexual harassment in the Park Service. The funds allowed me to travel around the West, to three states, to interview agency employees.

By December, we received 87 tips via email and a handful of phone calls and letters. Sixty-one of those were from people who said they were National Park Service current and former employees. The rest was from current or former employees of other public land agencies, including U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and U.S. Geological Survey.

The interviews 

Throughout this investigation, I interviewed more than 50 people – men, women, federal employees, lawyers, researchers, a retired Park Service director and many former superintendents, rangers, scientists and supervisors. Many of those included employees who wrote to HCN, but I found many others who were willing to open up about their experiences when contacted. I traveled to Washington D.C., Death Valley, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana, Jackson, Wyoming and Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. It took months to build trust and rapport with these women – especially those who allowed us to use their names. Many were fearful that their careers, and future job potential was in danger if they spoke out against the agency.

Quite a few of the sources asked to remain anonymous, which is not uncommon for victims of sexual harassment and assault. Most of them feared losing their jobs, being passed up for promotions, or being retaliated against for speaking out. Because that concern was so common – especially among young women just starting their Park Service careers – we decided to allow it for several women in the story. Each one was interviewed extensively, as were at least one or two of their family, friends, coworkers, supervisors, or other confidants, to verify the information. Most provided some form of documentation about their case, including complaints written and submitted to the EEOC, notes they or their supervisors took, emails to colleagues, journal entries and performance evaluations.

Below is an annotation of two first-hand accounts from women who reported they were sexually assaulted and harassed by male coworkers. Hover over the highighted text to see how we corroborated their accounts. Click the ‘X’ to return to the excerpt.

Throughout the reporting process, I requested interview with multiple Park Service employees, including superintendents, regional directors, Director Jarvis, former deputy director Peggy O’Dell and alleged harassers. All the requests were repeatedly denied and questions routed through public information officers.

The FOIA process

To find the official data for these types of reports, in mid-February, HCN sent Freedom of Information Act requests to the National Park Service for the number of EEO complaints about sexual harassment, gender discrimination and hostile work environment from 2000 to 2016; the number of sexual assaults recorded by park law enforcement from 2000 to 2016; and the number of internal investigations the Park Service led looking into these issues. We requested records from three regional offices – Intermountain, Pacific West, Alaska – and national data from the Washington D.C. headquarters.

Throughout the year, HCN filed several more FOIA requests, for sexual harassment training data in the National Park Service and Department of Interior, the budget for sexual harassment training in the agencies, and the number of alleged perpetrators who were fired as a result of sexual harassment or gender discrimination. In total, there were at least 12 FOIA requests. Most of them – in particular, the requests for specific investigations and cases – have still not been released. The specific investigation requests were put under the umbrella of my request for sexual harassment and gender discrimination data. Investigation reports – even reports with names redacted – have still not been released to HCN. The Park Service also qualified my request as “voluminous” and said it would take at least 60 days to process.

In November – a full nine months after submitting a FOIA request – HCN received EEO data from the Park Service – but it was from 2002 to 2016. The data described the complaints by park, but did not specify if a male or female filed it, and only defined informal and formal “sex-based” complaints, which meant they had the word “sex” in the description.

The Washington D.C. FOIA officer told me that no records for sexual assaults were found from 2013 to present. This was a search of electronic data the agency has because they updated the system that year. When I requested physical copies prior to 2013, the FOIA officer told me law enforcement refused to look for physical data because it would take too much time. Another FOIA officer said that EEO reports are discarded after four years, and that the agency does not keep track of how many calls are made to EEO counselors – which is the first step in the process of filing a complaint, and where many employees drop off. 

The federal processes not only make it difficult for employees to report incidents, but also render it nearly impossible to understand the scope of the problem because of the lack of transparency and consistent data.

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