Yosemite’s superintendent retires after discrimination allegations surface

New allegations of harassment, discrimination crop up in Yosemite, Yellowstone.


Editor's note: A week after employees came forward accusing Yosemite National Park Superintendent Don Neubacher of gender discrimination, bullying, intimidation, and humiliation, he has announced his retirement. In an email, Neubacher wrote to employees that the Pacific West regional director gave him the option to work in Denver as a Senior Advisor to Michael Reynolds, Deputy Director for the National Park Service. He chose to stay in California and retire from the agency, effective November 1:

At a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Thursday, Congress members shed light on egregious sexual harassment and gender discrimination in two of America’s most cherished parks: Yellowstone and Yosemite. They join the growing list of national parks plagued by a culture of sexual harassment, retaliation and intimidation.

It’s not the first time Congress has put the National Park Service on the spot: in June, Reps. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, Elijah Cummings, D- Maryland and other committee members spent hours interrogating NPS director Jon Jarvis about a multi-decade pattern of sexual harassment in Grand Canyon National Park’s River District and a Department of Interior investigation of sexual harassment in Florida’s Canaveral National Seashore. 

Kelly Martin, chief of fire and aviation management at Yosemite, at work in the park. She testified this week before Congress about rampant discrimination there.
Elizabeth Shogren

This week, the committee grilled Mike Reynolds, the new deputy director of the Park Service, about why the agency hasn’t taken more action since these problems were revealed earlier this year. They also interviewed Kelly Martin, chief of fire and aviation management at Yosemite and one of the more prominent female officials in the agency, about her own issues with sexual harassment in the agency, and Brian Healy, fisheries program manager at Grand Canyon, about how the park has changed its ways since a Department of Interior investigation revealed nearly two decades of sexual harassment and retaliation, and inaction on the part of the park administration.

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. We’d also like to hear from Yosemite and Yellowstone employees who have experienced some of the harassment described in this article.

According to the committee, 18 Yosemite employees have come forward saying Superintendent Don Neubacher, who has been in charge of the park since 2010, bullied, intimidated, and humiliated them. Neubacher’s wife, Patricia, is the deputy director of the Pacific West Region, which oversees Yosemite, which legislators say makes the problem worse. During the opening statements, Chaffetz quoted the Yosemite investigator, also a Park Service employee: “The number of employees interviewed about the horrific working conditions lead us to believe that the environment is toxic, hostile, repressive, and harassing.”

Martin spoke about the sexual harassment she’s experienced throughout her 32-year career. She told of one incident early in her career, when a park ranger watched her shower through a bathroom window. When she reported it, he apologized to her but the park took no action, and he was promoted through the ranks until he retired as a deputy superintendent, she said. She also said that Yosemite still has problems, and male and female employees are “publicly humiliated by the superintendent, intimidated in front of colleagues, and are having their professional credibility and integrity minimized or questioned.”

Montana Pioneer reported allegations of sexual misconduct in Yellowstone in early September. The accusations include sexual exploitation, intimidation, retaliation and sexual harassment. One employee, Robert Hester, told the publication that female employees were being coerced by supervisors to perform sexual acts, and alleged that a department chief knew about it. The superintendent, Dan Wenk, told the publication that he was unaware of any misconduct.

Reynolds said in the testimony Thursday that he was made aware of the problems in Yellowstone the first week of September, and a third-party investigator will arrive at the park by the end of the month.

It was also revealed this week that the chief ranger accused of harassment in Canaveral National Seashore is still employed by the park and allowed to work from home. The park’s superintendent was promoted to the Southeast Regional office in Atlanta and is also working from home.

NPS officials have stuck to the same message they’ve given since the Grand Canyon report was released in January: they have implemented mandatory sexual harassment training, a hotline for victims to call immediately when they experience harassment (though employees say the hotline is not set up yet, it is expected in October) and will run a survey this year to determine how widespread the problem is. On Thursday, committee members told them that didn’t go far enough.

“We see this time and time again. It’s not good enough to just say we’re going to ask the Inspector General to do it,” Chaffetz said. “The Park Service and other agencies need to do their job and provide immediate relief, not punt it to someone else to start doing it. It’s not good enough to just say we're going to do a survey. I’m tired of hearing about surveys. There’s a problem.”

This story has been corrected to reflect that there have been official allegations of gender discrimination in Yosemite, not sexual harassment. 

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