National Park Service chief expands sexual harassment probe

Upcoming survey to determine if misconduct at the Grand Canyon represents a widespread problem.


After falling under scrutiny about the way it has handled long-term sexual harassment at the Grand Canyon, the National Park Service is expanding its probe to see if the case represents a broader cultural crisis within the park system. “I hope that what occurred at the Grand Canyon is an anomaly, but I don’t know that,” Jonathan Jarvis, director of the National Park Service told High Country News in an interview at his office in Washington, D.C. “We have to find out if there are similar situations in other parts of the park system.”

At the urging of members of Congress, Jarvis plans to conduct a survey of the entire agency, though no details about the survey have been provided. Jarvis also sent a memo to his staff of more than 20,000 on March 15, requesting that employees with sexual harassment complaints reach out to supervisors. If they fail to get adequate responses, he urges them to appeal to other supervisors or their local equal opportunity contacts.

National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis.

In January, the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General released a report about sexual harassment by boatmen at the Grand Canyon’s river district for almost two decades. In February, the Park Service released a written statement that it had “zero tolerance” for sexual harassment. Since then, Grand Canyon superintendent Dave Uberuaga abolished the Grand Canyon River District, and intermountain regional director Sue Masica has been working on a larger plan to address sexual harassment through training and more active responses to complaints in the future.  

The shocking investigation found 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 Park Service managers and the regional director were aware of these issues and failed to take action for years.

Some members of Congress accuse the Park Service of moving too slowly and failing to adequately punish the accused harassers and their managers. In a letter dated March 23, 2016, members of Congress pressed Jarvis to broaden the investigation and conduct an agency-wide survey. Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., says he and some colleagues other came up with the survey idea because they were impatient with the Park Service’s response.

“It’s scary that they didn’t take the initiative to do this on their own,” Gallego told HCN in an interview. “When you start hearing about sexual harassment, they tend not to be isolated incidents. A culture of sexual harassment and cover up tends to happen. This is why we want to do a survey, to draw out more information. A whack-a-mole policy to take care of the issue as it pops up is not a good system.”

Gallego adds that it’s “ridiculous” that no one has been fired following the January report.  “Process should not be the excuse for inaction. How do female employees feel when someone found to be a sexual harasser is still employed? What message does this send?”

One of the perpetrators mentioned in the OIG investigation who has been accused by multiple women of sexual harassment and retaliation is still employed at the Grand Canyon.

Jarvis defends his agency’s response, stressing that federal employees have more protections than private employees. If the Park Service fails to follow proper procedures, it risks having employees reinstated. “We’re not done,” Jarvis adds. “I want to make sure we get this right.” Jarvis also suggested that Uberuaga may be among those disciplined. The OIG investigation shows that although Uberuaga received a report from an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigation in 2013, he sat on it for months. According to the OIG report, “no disciplinary or administrative action was taken against employees who were identified in the report as having violated DOI and NPS regulations.”

“(Uberuaga) made some mistakes on this issue. There’s no question about that. That also will be dealt with appropriately,” says Jarvis, a longtime friend of Uberuaga’s. “I’m not protecting him.” However, Jarvis declined to comment on which mistakes warranted repercussions.

Debbie Dougherty is a professor of organizational communication at the University of Missouri and has spent years researching sexual harassment in organizational cultures like federal agencies. To get it right, she says, requires deep assessment of the culture and a willingness to hold harassers accountable. “They need to stop being so fearful of firing people, whether they've been there for a long time or not,” she says. “Zero tolerance isn’t something we just say, it's something we engage in.”

When the OIG report was released in January, HCN put up a tip form so that federal public lands employees could share their experiences with sexual harassment. More than a dozen responses tell us that the Grand Canyon case is not an isolated incident. Macho cultures in land management seem to have contributed to sexual harassment problems in a variety of these agencies. The failure to fire anyone has left many Park Service employees with low morale and little trust in the system. “I have experienced sexual harassment in the NPS first-hand, but the lack of response on the part of Grand Canyon managers and the retaliation I received for reporting it was almost more disturbing to me,” says Rachel Brady, a former river ranger at the Grand Canyon and one of the 13 complainants who prompted the OIG investigation.

The Grand Canyon, above Cardenas Creek.

For now, Jarvis’ focus is on the survey. He plans to solicit advice from the Pentagon, which regularly surveys the military about sexual harassment and assault. “When we conduct such a survey it has to be something that protects the privacy of an individual so that they feel that they can let us know; but gives me enough so that I can actually do something about it,” Jarvis says.

Elizabeth, a current Park Service employee who has worked at seven parks and experienced sexual harassment herself, is skeptical the agency will do anything beyond a survey. “Other than the Washington folks getting some ideas of how bad the problem is, it doesn’t mean they're going to do much to implement change,” she says. (Elizabeth asked that her last name not be used because she worries about retaliation for speaking critically.)

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

According to Dougherty, understanding the complexities of sexual harassment and the institutionalized culture of a bureaucratic agency is not as simple as handing out a survey. Until recently, how the military handled sexual assault was a prime example of that. It took several scandals, in-depth interviews, and many surveys before the Department of Defense implemented strategic programs like hotlines, counseling, and persistent training to address the issue.

An effective survey doesn’t just ask people if they've ever been a victim or perpetrator of sexual harassment, Dougherty says. It would include questions about the culture of an organization to try to learn why sexual harassment is tolerated. Research shows focus groups with employees can help craft good surveys, for example, by learning the language men use to refer to women. “You have to identify the issues within the culture before you can make a survey,” Dougherty says.

Experts suggest the Park Service may not get a full picture of its sexual harassment problem until it comes down harder on perpetrators so that employees can trust that harassers, and not victims, will suffer consequences. “We need to learn how to better track who [perpetrators] are and eliminate them from the culture – that sends a message – but to do that, you have to believe women enough where they aren't afraid to come forward and report,” Dougherty says.

Elizabeth Shogren is HCN's DC Correspondent.

Lyndsey Gilpin is an editorial intern at HCN

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