How will Interior respond to Yellowstone harassment?

An investigation found a culture of “inappropriate comments and actions.”

 

This story was originally published by Fusion.

A new report from the Department of the Interior documents heavy drinking, derogatory language, and allegations of sexual misconduct over several years in a maintenance division unit at Yellowstone National Park. Male supervisors and staff there “created a work environment that included unwelcome and inappropriate comments and actions toward women,” according to the report, which followed an investigation by the department’s Office of the Inspector General. And that environment persisted, the report says, because of the actions or inactions of supervisors.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks to a crowd at Yellowstone National Park.
Yellowstone National Park/Flickr

What happens next falls to Michael Reynolds, acting director of the National Park Service. The inspector general’s findings were forwarded to him “for any action he deemed appropriate.” But first, said Morgan Warthin, a spokesperson for the park, Yellowstone’s superintendent, Dan Wenk, and the park’s regional director, Sue Masica, are working on recommendations for actions the park service should take. They have 90 days from the report’s April 12 release to submit their suggestions to Reynolds and the inspector general, Warthin said.

In the meantime, Yellowstone has scheduled a mandatory training for supervisors on employee relations in early May, Warthin said, and Wenk discussed the report’s findings with employees at a staff meeting last week. In 2016, all park employees were required to attend training that addressed hostile work environments and sexual harassment amid revelations of misconduct at the Grand Canyon National Park.

No one has been fired or demoted, Warthin said, but Wenk and Masica are reviewing possible changes to the park’s personnel. The report identified serious problems, she said, and while it focused on one unit in a park that spans three states, they’re likely not confined to just the maintenance division.

“There is absolutely a commitment from the superintendent to acknowledge the findings and to begin to work to change the culture at Yellowstone and to focus on a positive culture in the future—one in which all employees thrive,” Warthin said.

But Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, thinks sexual harassment is a symptom of a larger dysfunction at national parks. “And that is that the agency has no accountability,” he said. He pointed to Robert Hester, the Yellowstone employee who initially made the allegations of misconduct at the park, as evidence that the system is broken. Rather than report them to the inspector general, Hester contacted the magazine The Mountain Pioneer with his claims of a “men’s club,” a culture of gender bias, sexual harassment, and financial misconduct in the park’s maintenance division from 2011 to 2015. That spurred the government’s investigation in which the inspector general’s office interviewed more than 100 current and former employees and reviewed more than 500 documents to dig into Hester’s assertions. Ruch, though, believes these kinds of incidents only get attention by accident. Nor is he optimistic that the park service will take any constructive steps towards addressing sexual misconduct in the parks.

While former National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis faced criticism from lawmakers in both political parties over sexual harassment in the agency, the power lies with President Donald Trump’s administration, not Congress, Ruch said.

“The idea that the Trump administration is going to be administrating a zero tolerance regime on sexual harassment is a little difficult to grasp,” he said, explaining that the president has a reputation for being a “sexual harasser.”

Lesa Donnelly, a former Forest Service worker who now represents federal employees in employment disputes, is more hopeful that the new administration will bring change she feels is badly needed to the park and forest services. She had applauded former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell for responding quickly after Donnelly helped about a dozen women request an investigation into a sexually hostile work environment at the Grand Canyon, but she was disheartened by a lack of accountability afterward.

“The only way we get these types of incidents stopped is to hold people accountable,” she said. “The key really is accountability, and that’s not what happens.”

U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform committee, captured that sentiment in June when he asked Jarvis how many instances of sexual harassment it takes to fire a federal official.

“Three substantiated allegations and he still works there?” Chaffetz said of one ranger who was still working at Canaveral National Seashore in Florida. “The guy should be arrested. What does that say to the women? Your leadership is lacking. You’re failing the system.” (Neither Chaffetz nor U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the committee, responded to interview requests.)

The Yellowstone report found that some allegations Hester made in The Mountain Pioneer were inaccurate or exaggerated, such as his claim that a supervisor in the maintenance division unit sexually exploited a subordinate. The Pioneer reported:

“One female employee, he said, ‘never did anything …  she was (in effect) paid for sex,’ having been more or less kept by one of her supervisors for a sexual relationship, according to Hester, while doing little else. Hester said the situation was well known in the division, and that the female employee, a laborer, would ‘drink daily,’ essentially being kept inebriated and available for favors for her superior.”

The woman told the inspector general’s office that she was never kept “drunk on the job” in order to have sex, according to the report. While she and the supervisor had a relationship while she worked for him, she said, it was consensual.

Another woman Hester claimed was groped by a supervisor denied the allegation but other employees the inspector general’s office interviewed reported that they saw the supervisor rub the woman’s lower back in a way that made them uncomfortable. “When asked whether it was right or wrong for him, as a supervisor, to touch a female employee, the maintenance division supervisor stated: ‘Times have changed.’ but admitted: ‘Nowadays, yes, it’s wrong.’”

The report detailed an employee calling a woman a “bitch,” and a culture that the maintenance division supervisor described as a “good old boy system.”

“He told us that when he came to Yellowstone in the 1990s, this culture was rampant, and he acknowledged that although it had improved over time, it still existed,” the report says. A former deputy superintendent said there was some tolerance of “boys being boys.”

The investigator general’s office found six women who had previously worked with the unit who felt that they had been subjected to derogatory comments or actions that made them feel uncomfortable. One woman said men in the unit would make degrading sexual and racist comments in her presence. Someone once stole six pairs of her underwear from her dresser drawer. Another employee said she was verbally abused by two male coworkers who also talked “dirty” to her (though both men denied the allegation). And while the woman who had reportedly been kept “drunk on the job” for sex denied that allegation, she said that she had been mistreated at Yellowstone. The park was a “man’s world,” she said, adding that that park officials needed to “wake up” to the fact that men there were “very dominating,” according to the report.

The report also concluded that there was no indication of hiring discrimination by the maintenance division supervisor. The supervisor acknowledged that in early 2016 he said, “we’re not hiring any women this year” but he later changed his mind and offered seasonal positions to two women.

But to Ruch, something the supervisor said to the inspector general’s office as he explained his comment seems to confirm the whole thrust of the discrimination claim:

“He did not want the ‘distraction’ of a woman there without direct supervision,” the report says. “As of the date of this report, the unit had no female employees.”

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