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Forest Service chief resigns over allegations of sexual misconduct

Tony Tooke stepped down from his role but disputes allegations against him.


The chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Tony Tooke, resigned on Wednesday after allegations of sexual harassment against him surfaced. According to PBS NewsHour, which first reported the accusations, the Forest Service hired an independent investigator to look into allegations that Tooke had improper relationships with subordinates before he became the head of the agency. Tooke has worked for the Forest Service for nearly 40 years.

In a letter to employees announcing his retirement, Tooke touted his dedication to the agency and deflected blame for his actions. “Each employee deserves a leader who can maintain the proper moral authority to steer the Forest Service along this important and challenging course,” Tooke wrote.

“In some of these news reports, you may have seen references to my own behavior in the past. This naturally raised questions about my record and prompted an investigation, which I requested and fully support, and with which I have cooperated,” Tooke wrote. “I have been forthright during the review, but I cannot combat every inaccuracy that is reported in the news media.”

Tooke did not specify what reports he labelled inaccurate.

There’s so much work to do in the field of sexual harassment and elsewhere that it was the right thing for him to do to resign so the agency can get back to work,” said Sharon Friedman, the editor of the New Century of Forest Planning blog, a hub for discussion of public land issues.

Federal land management agencies have been slow to take action in recent years, as evidence of a widespread culture of harassment came to light. Agencies like the Forest Service and National Park Service, which have predominantly male workforces, have long standing issues of harassment and sexism and a history of not holding workers accused of harassment accountable. Reporting has found that agencies swept complaints under the rug by rotating employees and in some cases even promoted staff accused of sexual harassment.

Female firefighters have long complained of harassment in the field and in the office, including taunting posts and even attempted rape by higher ranking co-workers. In one case reported by High Country News in 2016, a female Forest Service firefighter reported that a supervisor who choked and tried to rape her kept his job after she reported the attack. In their investigation of the Forest Service, PBS NewsHour found an environment that “remains hostile to female employees.”

The Park Service and Department of Interior have similarly been under scrutiny since a report from the Department of Interior’s Office of Inspector General revealed that reports of sexual misconduct and harassment in the Grand Canyon went unaddressed for over 15 years. An investigation by High Country News found similar inaction was widespread at other parks and in the Department of Interior at large. A survey released last fall found that nearly 40 percent of National Park Service employees experienced some form of harassment over a 12-month period.

The Forest Service and Department of Agriculture could not be reached for comment on Tooke’s resignation as of press time.

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.