National Park Service wrestles with harassment, low morale

Allegations of sexual harassment that surfaced at several national parks in 2016 are, to some insiders, a sign of a work culture long impaired by hierarchy and fiefdoms.

Susan Walsh/AP/File
National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, shown here at budget-related testimony to Congress in 2013, heads an agency that has seen rising concerns about harassment in 2016.

This year was supposed to be a year of celebration for the National Park Service – the 100-year anniversary of “America’s best idea” – and in many ways it was.

There have been special books and posters, articles and documentaries and a much-touted “Find Your Park” campaign.

But there have also been congressional hearings, resignations, and scandal as festering workplace issues – including numerous sexual-harassment claims – come to light.

A growing number of employees have come forward – including in high-profile parks like the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone – to talk about a workplace culture where they say bullying is rampant, sexual harassment goes unaddressed, complaints can lead to retribution, and top employees face no accountability.

Now, with attention from Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, the National Park Service (NPS) is under pressure to radically overhaul a work culture that many employees describe as toxic. And, in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential election win, attention may focus on how well the agency is able to follow through on its promises to change that culture, and on how much priority the Trump administration gives to addressing sexual harassment.  

“This does not appear to be a leadership that is going to be concerned about either sexual harassment or employee discrimination or even workplace morale,” says Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a watchdog group that represents public environmental employees.

One big unknown is the tenor of appointees who will arrive under the incoming administration. The Interior Department, according to news reports, may once again be led by a woman. Mr. Trump appears poised to nominate Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington State to the post. Judging by Trump's campaign positions, a top priority for her will be to shift toward a friendlier stance on fossil-fuel development on federal lands.

“One of the few specific things [Trump] has said that may bear on this is a hiring freeze,” Mr. Ruch says. “The Park Service will likely have zero additional dollars to deal with this…. It’s potentially a whole, not just another page, but another book.”

Sexual harassment has jumped to new prominence as a national issue this fall, as the leaked Access Hollywood audio tape of Donald Trump making lewd comments prompted thousands of women to come forward with their own stories of assault and harassment – big and small, subtle and blatant – often with the hashtag #NotOkay.

But the realization that some of those stories extended into the work culture of one of the most revered and admired of federal agencies has been shocking to many Americans – though not necessarily some long-time Park Service employees who say that numerous systemic issues have helped to create an environment in which bullying was common and accountability scarce.

Some of the problems employees cite include a decentralized and hierarchical system – the NPS has about 22,000 employees at more than 400 sites, with a huge amount of power resting with the superintendents and administrators at those sites; isolated locations with close living conditions; a male-dominated culture; and personnel practices that tend to favor internal hiring of people with years of service in the agency, and that seem to give immunity to those same people.

Allegations at multiple parks

“I’ve worked for several federal agencies, and none of them talk about their ‘royalty’ the way Park Service does,” says one longtime NPS employee, who cites a toxic work environment as the reason she recently left the agency after more than two decades working in both Washington and individual parks. She, like many current and former employees the Monitor spoke with for this story, asked to remain anonymous to protect her current job.

That culture, in which employees tend to rise through the ranks over many years, gaining a sort of invulnerability as they do so, is just one of the aspects that leads to abuse, she says. “The higher up you are, the less accountable you are, and the more protected you are by Park Service royalty.”

The problems vary and don't necessarily extend to all NPS sites, but over the past year, allegations have emerged, park by park, in multiple locations.  

In January, the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General released a report outlining “evidence of discrimination, retaliation, and a sexually hostile work environment” in the Grand Canyon’s River District over a 15-year period. Women described numerous instances of sexual harassment from park-employee boatmen on the river, including unwelcome propositions for sex and verbal harassment. When women complained, their confidentiality was repeatedly breached, the report found, and many described a culture of retaliation and victim-blaming. The superintendent there, Dave Uberuaga, was offered a position in Washington, but chose instead to retire this spring.

In June, a report came out about Canaveral National Seashore in Florida, detailing sexual harassment toward multiple female employees, including being subjected to unwanted advances from the chief law enforcement officer. Both male and female employees described a pattern of bullying and a hostile workplace environment. The accused law enforcement officer, Edwin Correa, was eventually ordered to work at home as the reports became public, and the superintendent at the park was temporarily reassigned, but both are still employed by the Park Service.

At Yosemite, similar reports have been emerging. At congressional hearings this fall, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R) of Utah cited an internal report in which 18 Yosemite employees had come forward to describe a pattern of sexual harassment and bullying. The report wasn’t made public, but Representative Chaffetz said the allegations were “so alarming you would expect the Washington office to come in immediately and make sure things are safe.” Yosemite’s superintendent, Don Neubacher, announced his retirement at the end of September.

And most recently, harassment has been reported Yellowstone. A story in the Mountain Pioneer detailed multiple accounts of both sexual harassment and financial misconduct, including charges that one female employee was kept on solely to provide sexual services to her superior, and was then terminated “due to her objections and emotional state,” according to the Pioneer story.

Response under way

While questions have been raised about systemic problems in the NPS work culture, including sexual harassment, since at least 1999 when a task force was created to address the issue, the widening investigations and publicity that the issue has received this year seems to have the agency taking notice.

In July, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said that the reports that had come out so far were likely “just the tip of the iceberg,” and said in an NPR interview that “a culture that allows these things to go on that needs to change.”

“It’s a huge priority,” says NPS deputy director Mike Reynolds, who oversees operations. “While it isn’t a hugely numerous number of places where [charges of harassment] have occurred, where it has occurred it has been completely unacceptable.”

Among other changes – including making sexual-harassment training mandatory for all employees – Mr. Reynolds says that the NPS is planning on implementing better training and a better reporting system, including a confidential hotline, hiring both a male and female ombudsman that employees can come to with grievances, and implementing a survey of all seasonal and full-time NPS employees to determine the extent of the problem.

“We expect an uptick in reporting,” says Reynolds. “I expect it to get a little more difficult before it gets better.”

Hiring and promotion practices also may need to change, Reynolds acknowledged, both in terms of emphasizing and recruiting for diversity, and in looking for hires in new places.

“This is a place where people spent 30 years of their lives, and changed and moved around, and one way to adjust that culture is to bring a lot of people into the culture that have skill sets and talents and aren’t necessarily from the culture themselves,” he says. “We grow our people up. We can consciously say we won’t always do that now.”

Among the current and former employees interviewed for this article, there was little confidence that changes would be made under the current leadership, including NPS director Jon Jarvis – who will retire in January.

Some note that these issues have been raised in the past, including in 1999, when the task force was created to address issues of harassment, producing a report detailing a five-year plan to improve conditions for women in the Park Service – including creating a hotline, mentorship and recruitment programs, and improving harassment training – none of which were implemented.

Morale a challenge

Several Washington-based NPS employees cited a morale survey their union conducted in 2014 in their department because the workplace had become so toxic. Nearly 95 percent of respondents rated morale in the department as “low,” and 80 percent cited poor upper management as the reason. “In my over 25 years of working in NPS Cultural Resources, I’ve never seen morale lower than it is now,” one survey respondent wrote.

But when the union sent the survey to the director and deputy director, its leaders received no reply. They finally got a response from Reynolds, then an associate director of Workforce, Relevancy, and Inclusion, but many of the employees took the letter, and Reynolds’ refusal to meet with representatives, as dismissive.

Brian Witte/AP/File
The Colorado River at the Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, in a 2002 file photo. The National Park Service outlined a series of actions in response to a federal report that found employees at the Grand Canyon preyed on their female colleagues and retaliated against them for refusing sexual advances.

“Bad apples aren’t punished, there’s no accountability,” says one former mid-level manager based in Washington, who left the NPS last year after she complained to the Inspector General Office about endemic mismanagement and harassment, and found herself instead the subject of a retaliatory investigation.

“The inner core, they start out together, they protect one another,” she said.

She and others cite one upper-level manager who was hired as a deputy in their department despite being found to have thousands of pornographic images on his office computer while he was superintendent at Gettysburg National Military Park.

At Yellowstone, there used to be a list in the break room of the superintendent’s rules, remembers one seasonal employee at the park. “One of the rules was, manage your expectations. Another was, 'you have no opinion that isn’t my opinion,' ” he says. “The whole thing seemed dictatorial and top-down… It’s a very unequal system.”

That employee’s wife, who was also a seasonal NPS worker for 13 years, mostly at Yellowstone, says the large number of seasonal workers helps contribute to the power imbalance and the harassment issues that can emerge.

Once, she remembers, she was propositioned several times by a supervisor several pay grades above her. He was married, and eventually ended up in a sexual relationship with another seasonal employee under his supervision, despite an extreme power imbalance.

“I know I never felt comfortable complaining, and never felt it was appropriate to complain about it, it was just something you deal with,” the employee says. “The seasonals are fighting tooth and nail for those positions – which are becoming fewer and fewer – which are permanent…. [The permanent staff] not only tend to be supervisory staff, but they also have this almost nobility status of being able to do almost whatever they please without consequences.”

In testimony before Congress, Kelly Martin, chief of fire and aviation management at Yosemite, cited numerous instances of harassment in her 32-year career with the park service – including stalking by a “peeping Tom” and unwelcome advances by superiors. When she reported the incidents to supervisors, she was discouraged from filing formal complaints, and later learned that multiple other women reported similar stalking and voyeuristic behavior from the one individual, who kept on being promoted until his retirement.

Ms. Martin also cited gender bias in her work in fire management, including times when she felt discredited and undercut by supervisors despite years of competent work.

“This casting of doubt by leaders in our organization is pervasive and humiliating,” Martin wrote in her statement to Congress. “The Superintendent continues to communicate more directly with males on my staff than with me on matters pertaining to Yosemite Fire and Aviation Management.”

'It's like ship captains'

Mr. Ruch of PEER blames some of the endemic problems at NPS on the decentralized system, where each park can be its own fiefdom. “It’s like ship captains, where what happens on the ship stays on the ship, and it can fester for a lot of time,” says Ruch.

He believes that to truly change the culture, a change agent, who has the support of the White House, is needed as director. “You can change, but it’s difficult to evolve,” says Ruch. “We don’t know whether the incoming administration will perceive that the Park Service has a broader problem than sexual harassment. We think sexual harassment is a serious problem, but it’s part of a broader problem that needs to be addressed.”

It’s unclear whether the momentum this issue gained this year, through increased publicity and congressional hearings, can be maintained into a new administration with potentially drastically different priorities than the current one.

Speaking before the election, Reynolds acknowledged that truly changing the culture won’t be easy, and is likely to take a long time, but he also expressed confidence that it can happen, and emphasized the many strengths that the Park Service still possesses – including, in many instances, telling stories of diversity, and of all Americans.

“The Park Service tells some of America’s most difficult stories,” says Reynolds, citing examples like America’s Japanese internment camps, the story of Cesar Chavez, and the importance of “Buffalo Soldiers.”  

“While we’ve been very externally focused with this centennial on helping the country understand its full story … we’ll want to focus on our internal foundations, to make sure we’re strong at telling those stories,” he says. “We should be able to turn that light a little more on ourselves.”

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