Investigations show extensive harassment history in Park Service

The agency made a plan to protect female employees in 2000, but it appears no meaningful action was taken.

 

A federal investigation revealed earlier this year that women scientists, rangers and rafting guides who worked in the River District of the Grand Canyon endured sexual harassment for nearly two decades. National Park Service administrators were taken aback, appalled it could have occurred under their watch. 

“I have zero tolerance for the behavior described in the (Office of Inspector General) investigation,” wrote Intermountain Regional Director Sue Masica in a February response to the Department of Interior. She outlined a series of deadlines to take disciplinary action. The Grand Canyon abolished its River District, and after pressure from Congress members, National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis vowed to run an agency-wide survey to discover how widespread the problem is.

Yet despite the shocked responses from high-profile officials, the agency has long recognized that it has a problem with sexual harassment and discrimination against women. Over 16 years ago, park executives created a special task force to investigate reports of gender bias, sexual harassment, hostile work environments and retaliation that female criminal investigators, park police and rangers faced in national parks across the country.

The Women in Law Enforcement Task Force was comprised of park officials and several female law enforcement employees. They met twice in 2000 to create the “Women in Law Enforcement Task Force Report,” a 19-page document that High Country News obtained and verified through multiple former Park Service employees. It’s unclear who was responsible for starting the task force, but current Deputy Director Peggy O’Dell was a member. In November 2000, the report was shared with the agency’s National Leadership Council, a senior administration group that included former director Bob Stanton, former deputy director Dennis Galvin, Masica, who was associate director at the time, and directors from each regional office.

The report concluded the agency had an “inability to retain women in (law enforcement) positions,” because of gender bias, sexual harassment and hostile work environments. Documents from leadership council meetings show that longtime Park Service officials, including Masica, have been aware for years of the difficulties women face working in national parks and that the agency even developed a plan to improve things for women in law enforcement. The recent River District scandal is only the latest manifestation of this longstanding problem.

Supported by data from both a national survey of Park Service and a survey of female U.S. Park Police employees, the report showed that over half of Park Service female rangers and three quarters of women park police who responded experienced sexual harassment on the job. Almost three quarters of respondents said they experienced gender discrimination, and 68 percent of them said the Park Service was poor or “so-so” at enforcing its zero-tolerance policy. About 80 percent said they knew someone who had experienced these things and that the Park Service did not protect them from retaliation for reporting problems.

In response to the report, members of the leadership council were responsible for deciding how to implement a five-year plan to improve conditions for women in law enforcement. The plan included mentorship and scholarship funding, recruitment and retention programs for women, better harassment training for all employees, and a hotline for people to report grievances to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) office. The target date for completion: October 2005.

And then, “it just died,” says Sherrie Collins, a former law enforcement ranger for Grand Canyon who filed an EEO lawsuit in 1999 against the agency over gender discrimination. In 2000, she took the survey but never heard of its results.

For this story, I spoke to six former and current women law enforcement employees, as well as multiple retired high-level administrators, including former superintendents, deputy superintendents, chief rangers and a former Park Service director. They said most of the report’s recommendations were never implemented. Several also said the report disappeared in 2001— the people I spoke to who participated in the survey, task force, or worked in law enforcement in Grand Canyon all said that they never heard anything about it again.

Park Service spokesman Jeffrey Olson says that the “women in law enforcement report is one of the documents we will revisit as part of the current review of employee workplace safety.” The agency has not responded to requests to speak with current administrators who may have knowledge of the 2000 task force, including O’Dell. Olson says that some action items were implemented, such as hiring a law enforcement director -- though that action was not part of the plan outlined in the report. The agency did not respond to requests for details on how the report might factor into the current investigation of the River District.

Turnover of employees appears to be one barrier to meaningful action on sexual harassment and discrimination complaints. After Stanton retired in 2001, Fran Mainella became Park Service director and should have been given the 2000 Women in Law Enforcement report. Two former female rangers involved with the task force, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said that because they didn’t trust the Park Service, they decided to hand Mainella a copy in person when she visited Grand Canyon. They hoped the first woman director of the agency would take swifter action.

Mainella told me in a phone interview she doesn’t even recall getting a copy, and she was unsure who would have taken full responsibility for it. Over 30 action items — such as providing more funding for law enforcement programs and creating more accountability for supervisors — were outlined in response to the survey, but the agency apparently failed to take meaningful action. A now-retired park administrator, Dick Ring, who became associate director of operations and education (which oversaw law enforcement) in 2000 after the task force was already set in motion, says some recommendations were delegated to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Park Service human resources department. He says he was responsible for implementing certain actions, but lack of funding was part of the reason they never came to fruition. It’s unclear what happened to all 30 recommendations, but according to several former law enforcement rangers and a former human resources director, there was no EEO hotline, no scholarship program, no mandatory extra training on harassment, and no further research about issues women in the agency faced. 

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

The Women in Law Enforcement Task Force was not the sole investigation of gender-based discrimination or harassment in the agency that occurred in recent decades. One man named J.T. Reynolds spent his career fighting for better treatment of minorities and women in what he describes as the white-boy culture of the agency. Now retired, he used to work as a chief ranger, superintendent, and in several regional offices. During his time with the agency, he saw that women and people of color were not being promoted, recruited or hired as often as he thought they should have been.

While deputy superintendent of Grand Canyon in the late 1990s, working under superintendent Rob Arnberger, Reynolds started receiving complaints from women in the park about the gender wage gap, unfair treatment by supervisors, lack of promotional opportunities, crude comments and other forms of sexual harassment. 

During Reynolds’ tenure, in 1998, Grand Canyon ranger Andrea Lankford handed in her resignation, frustrated and angry by the lack of support for female law enforcement. She told me that many times during her 12-year career, male supervisors doubted her qualifications because she was a woman. For instance, when she was hired at Yosemite, she was referred to as a “test case” and told “women couldn’t handle the environment,” she says. At Grand Canyon, she watched as the female branch chief was kept at a pay scale lower than her male peers. Several former female law enforcement officers in Grand Canyon, including Lankford, tried to meet with management to talk about the inequality and inappropriate comments by certain men, but they never received a satisfactory response.

After she announced her resignation, 25 employees – 15 of them men – wrote a letter to Arnberger and chief ranger Steve Bone. They wanted management to help “eliminate the inequity and bias that forces highly effective women employees to leave (the park) simply because the current male-dominated network refuses to admit them as equals, and denies them their full potential." Arnberger, who is now retired, told me in an email that he doesn’t recall the specific circumstances at the Grand Canyon that contributed to the creation of the task force report. Arnberger was on the National Leadership Council that was supposed to oversee the task force’s progress.

Reynolds requested an independent, external investigation of the law enforcement program at Grand Canyon; he wanted the agency to investigate the behavior of Bone and several other male law enforcement rangers repeatedly accused of ignoring grievances women reported, discriminating against female employees, and retaliating against those who did file complaints. 

Three years after his request, in 2001, Intermountain Regional Director Karen Wade had her office perform an investigation into the program. In 2002, Reynolds wrote a scathing response to Wade about the investigation because it was done internally, rather than being contracted out to an objective investigator. He said the regional office performed a superficial review. “Amazingly, the investigation was handled with such bias and so incompetently by regional staff and with such a pre-disposition to exonerate alleged violators and gloss over actual events,” he wrote. (At the time of this publication, the Park Service had not yet responded to requests for comment about this investigation.)

After the investigation, administrators reassigned Bone from chief ranger to assistant superintendent of Bandelier National Park. Bone is now retired. Another supervisor was also promoted out of the Grand Canyon. “Reassigning staff is a typical practice of the NPS, which solves nothing,” Reynolds wrote in the letter to Wade.

While some of the accused men worked their way up the bureaucratic ladder through the 2000s, most women involved in the law enforcement complaints left the Grand Canyon or the Park Service altogether. The 2015 River District investigation shows that at least two male employees repeatedly accused of sexual harassment were promoted to positions in other parks or allowed to retire in recent years as well. Another man accused of the most egregious sexual harassment still works in Grand Canyon. The Park Service has not yet announced whether it has taken disciplinary action against any employees; Masica gave a deadline of May 1 to do so.

Many former and current employees worry the agency might sweep the River District investigation under the rug as well. “They’re going to find a way to stall," Reynolds says, "unless someone is willing to carry that baton."

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Lyndsey Gilpin is an editorial intern with High Country News.