Gender & Sexuality

Top Grand Canyon Official To Retire Amidst Sexual Harassment Investigations

Amidst investigations revealing a pattern of sexual misconduct and a hostile work environment in Grand Canyon National Park, the park district's superintendent David Uberuaga has announced his retirement.

In a letter emailed to Grand Canyon employees on May 17, Uberuaga described how he'd met with National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis to discuss the findings of a yearlong investigation by the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of the Interior (which oversees the National Park Service) about complaints in the park's River District. The OIG investigators spoke to more than 80 people, and identified 35 victims or witnesses who had experienced or seen the pattern of harassment continue for years, often with little response from Grand Canyon administrators.

Jarvis reportedly offered Uberuaga a transfer to Washington, DC, noting that “a change in leadership is needed in order for the Park to move forward.” Uberuaga opted to retire instead, effective June 1.

After the OIG released its findings in January, I spoke to a number of those victims for an Investigative Fund story for Huffington Post's Highline as well as numerous women who were victimized in California's Forest Service, uncovering a pattern of harassment, assault, and retaliation common to women working in wilderness careers.

The stories the women at the Grand Canyon told were chilling. There was Cheyenne Szydlo, a wildlife biologist who had been trapped alone on a nine-day river trip with a boatman who she said aggressively pursued and propositioned her for days, and who allegedly punished her by limiting the amount of food she was given when she rejected his advances. There was Chelly Kearney, a River Ranger who said that a colleague stripped in front of her and asked her to bathe with him. There was “Lynn” (not her real name), who was allegedly propositioned by the same employee, who on one trip asked whether she would sleep in his tent.

And then there was the backlash. After one boatman left the park subsequent to being disciplined for sexual harassment, the men in the River District erected a crude memorial to him in the boat shop. The men allegedly began to sabotage the work of the women who worked in science divisions along the river. And, fatefully, in 2014, one of the boat shop's alleged repeat offenders lodged complaints about sexual misconduct against Lynn and another woman — both of whom had filed harassment reports in years past. His retaliatory complaint ultimately led to both women losing their jobs, and helped spark the OIG investigation.

All of this happened under the oversight of park management, which repeatedly failed to treat complaints as confidential and adequately punish male offenders.

While little action had been taken since the OIG began its investigation, aside from the park announcing that it had banned alcohol on NPS river trips — a move that struck some of the women as victim-blaming — there have been several developments since Highline published my Investigative Fund story in March.

In mid-March, Superintendent Uberuaga informed employees that he was closing the River District program immediately. The same week, the NPS Director Jarvis sent an all-staff email reminding employees of the agency's zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment. In late March, a bipartisan group of congressional representatives called on the NPS to conduct an agency-wide sexual harassment survey to assess how widespread the problem was. And in May, the NPS focused part of its annual National Leadership Council meeting on sexual harassment within the agency, inviting members of the Department of Defense to brief the NPS on how the military has attempted to combat sexual harassment and assault.

In mid-May, however, came the most decisive response to the scandal, with the resignation of Superintendent Uberuaga, the top NPS official at the Grand Canyon.

That's good news for the women (and men) at the Grand Canyon who felt pushed out of the park because of its systemic harassment problem. But, as I learned in the course of reporting this story, the pattern at the Grand Canyon isn't isolated to one park. Similar problems exist within other government agencies tasked with protecting public lands — where women still aren't accepted as full colleagues in wilderness work.

This investigation is ongoing. If any readers have had experiences of, or have witnessed, sexual harassment, assault or other gender discrimination within government public lands agencies, please contact Kathryn Joyce at kathrynajoyce@gmail.com.

About the reporter

Kathryn Joyce

Kathryn Joyce

Kathryn Joyce is a journalist and author of The Child Catchers and Quiverfull.