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.

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