Slow progress on Park Service harassment

The agency begins to deliver on promises to confront sexual harassment.

 

Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk has spent the last year investigating allegations of sexual harassment and gender discrimination in his park. Now he’s carrying out up to 12 “disciplinary actions” — which could range from letters of reprimand to firings — and is working to improve training and reporting processes for Yellowstone employees.

In 2016, multiple Interior Department reports found that sexual harassment and gender discrimination were pervasive in parks across the country, including Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Yosemite. A yearlong High Country News investigation revealed that the National Park Service has failed for years to protect female employees from sexual harassment and has a history of retaliation against those who speak out. Interior Department leaders — including Secretary Ryan Zinke —promised Congress that they would take swift action to improve how the agency handles harassment.

Although Wenk’s response is a step in the right direction for Yellowstone, the agency as a whole still hasn’t delivered on many of its promises. To help employees address the issues from the ground up, the Park Service allowed seven staffers to start the Women’s Employee Resource Group, which aims to create professional development resources and educate all employees on harassment and the processes for reporting hostile work environments.

“As an employee, it’s my responsibility to hold all of us accountable to each other, to create a culture built on respect, accountability and transparency,” said Lark Weller, chair of the group and a water-quality coordinator for the National Park Service in Minnesota. “That’s something the organization has pledged itself to be accountable for as well.”

Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk has stepped up investigations into allegations of sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the park.
Neal Herbert/National Park Service

As part of its broader response, the Park Service surveyed employees about their personal experiences with on-the-job harassment. The results of the first survey will be available by early fall, and a second aimed at more employees is still in progress. The agency also hired two ombuds who confidentially communicate with employees about problems in the workplace. Between December and June, the ombuds spoke with over 450 employees and received over 1,500 comments. “The National Park Service remains committed to eradicating sexual harassment from our culture,” said spokesman Tom Crosson, adding that it’s a top priority not just for the Park Service but for the entire Department of Interior.

Yellowstone is one of the first parks to publicly take action after its investigation found a “good old boy system” where women were subjected to abusive behavior and racist and sexist comments. Wenk said some of the original allegations were “inaccurate or exaggerated,” but noted that he has taken proper steps to address the problems. “I’m not trying to downplay this at all — there are things we need to work on and need to fix and we are addressing — but I believe that our actions are appropriate.”

In June, Yellowstone employees attended mandatory training on how to identify and report hostile work environments. Wenk said he traveled around the park, from Old Faithful to Yellowstone Lake, hosting open office hours. “I learned a lot,” he said, adding that the Park Service system had “allowed obstacles to be created” for people who wanted to report problems in the workplace.

While Yellowstone’s disciplinary actions are an important step, staffers say, they would like to see more employee-led programs. That’s why Weller and six other women — including Kelly Martin, chief of fire and aviation management at Yosemite, who testified about gender discrimination in the park last year — took matters into their own hands. Last April, they formed the Women’s Employee Resource Group with the support of the agency’s Office of Relevancy, Diversity and Inclusion. The group now has 400 members representing every region of the country, gender and level of employee.

Already, the group has held bystander intervention training, and it plans to create educational materials to clarify processes for reporting harassment, and start a mentorship network in collaboration with other employee resource groups, such as those for LGBTQ and Indigenous employees. Weller said the challenge is figuring out how to make sure such groups have lasting impact. “Whenever we’re talking about culture change, there are structural barriers that make it hard for change to stick.”

Acting Park Service Director Mike Reynolds lauded the group’s work to Congress in June, saying the agency has “endorsed and supported” it, but group leaders voluntarily work on the initiatives on top of their day-to-day responsibilities and have not yet received extra funding. Though it’s gratifying that Reynolds thinks the group is good for the agency, Weller said, its success could be amplified if the agency invests more in the women’s work.

“We think we can continue to provide even clearer value to NPS employees and the agency itself as we all work — together — to find ever more intentional ways to build in the changes to our workplace culture that we’ve all agreed we need,” she said.

Lyndsey Gilpin writes on climate, environmental justice and the intersection of people and nature, and is the editor of Southerly, a newsletter for the American South.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CHAPTER DIRECTOR - IDAHO SIERRA CLUB
    Idaho could lead the nation in the transition to clean energy, and the Idaho Sierra Club is committed to making that happen. We seek to...
  • SEASONAL SAN JUAN RANGERS
    Seeking experienced crew members to patrol Colorado's most iconic mountain wilderness.
  • ENDANGERED SPECIES STAFF SCIENTIST
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks a staff scientist to advocate for the conservation of endangered species. General position overview: The position will involve working...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY - ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH PROGRAM
    The Center for Biological Diversity - a national nonprofit organization dedicated to the protection of imperiled plants, animals and wild places - seeks a dynamic...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks a Staff Attorney to join our team of attorneys, scientists, campaigners who are working to protect America's public lands...
  • SOUTHWEST CONSERVATION ADVOCATE
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks a Southwest Conservation Advocate to join our team of attorneys, scientists and campaigners who are working to protect America's...
  • OCEANS PROGRAM CAMPAIGNER
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks an experienced campaigner for its oceans program. The aim of the position is to campaign for the protection of...
  • CLIMATE LAW INSTITUTE ATTORNEY
    The Center for Biological Diversity's Climate Law Institute is looking to add an attorney to its team and will consider applicants at both staff attorney...
  • FULL-TIME CAMPAIGN DIRECTOR
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks a full-time Campaign Director in our Climate Law Institute to join our campaign for progressive, urgent government action to...
  • WESTERN WATER PROJECT MANAGER
    National Wildlife Federation is hiring NM-based position focused on riparian corridors, watershed health. Learn more and apply online: https://www.nwf.org/about-us/careers
  • ASSOCIATE PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Associate Program Director Location: New Mexico; flexible in state Position reports to: Senior Program Director Position Closes: March 13, 2020 GENERAL DESCRIPTION: The...
  • DEAN, W. A. FRANKE COLLEGE OF FORESTRY AND CONSERVATION, UNIVERSITY OF MONTANA
    Dean, W. A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, apply http://bit.ly/2548umjobs. AA/EEO/ADA/Veterans Preference Employer
  • GRAPHIC DESIGNER
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a creative and driven graphic design professional to design high quality print and digital collateral. The Graphic Designer will bring...
  • STEWARDSHIP SPECIALIST
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks experienced person to manage its 133 conservation easements in south-central Colorado.
  • CAMPAIGN REPRESENTATIVE
    Sierra Club's Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign is hiring an experienced campaigner to lead our work challenging the oil and fracked gas industry on the Gulf...
  • AG LANDS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Oregon Agricultural Trust (OAT) seeks passionate relationship builder experienced in coordinating agricultural conservation easement transactions.
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • FINANCE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Coms/Engagmnt Mngr; Dev/Engagmnt Dir; Americorps vol
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND ENGAGEMENT MANAGER
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Dev/Engagement Dir; Coms/Engagement Mngr; & Americorps volunteer
  • SEASONAL TRAIL CREW LEADERS
    Lead the nation's premier volunteer-based trail crew programs on the spectacular Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. This is a great career-building opportunity for rising professionals....