Gender & Sexuality

Cleaning up the Parks

After years of intransigence over sexual harassment at the Grand Canyon, a resignation, a termination, and Congressional hearings.
An aerial view near the West Rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, November 6, 2008.
ETHAN MILLER/GETTY IMAGES
An aerial view near the West Rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, November 6, 2008.

Early last year, a massive, years-long pattern of sexual harassment at the Grand Canyon, the crown jewel of the National Park Service, became a public scandal. As The Investigative Fund and Highline reported in March, female NPS employees at the Grand Canyon had, for more than 10 years, found themselves targeted with unwanted sexual attention when their work brought them to the 280-mile Colorado River Corridor at the bottom of the Canyon. Relatively isolated as they traveled with staff from the park's River District — the program that oversaw daily operations and law enforcement along the river — women reported, variously, that “boatmen” invited them to share their tents, asked them to describe sexual fantasies so they could act them out, or exposed themselves to their female colleagues. The hatch of one Park Service boat was covered with photos of topless women and women at times faced retaliation for rebuffing advances: guides obstructed their work, refused to take them to work sites or limited their meals; some women traveling alone with the river guides felt unsafe.

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There was little consequence for the accused harassers, who enjoyed an exalted status within the park; men who had reports filed against them were repeatedly slapped on the wrist by park management or, at worst, allowed to retire or resign. For years, qualified female rangers and other NPS staff drifted or were pushed out of the park, including, in 2014, two women whose contracts were terminated in what seemed like clear retaliation for previous sexual harassment complaints they'd made. By January, the Department of the Interior's Office of Inspector General released the results of a year-and-a-half-long investigation into the complaints, which included the experiences of 35 victims or witnesses of 13 years of sexual harassment, assault and hostile workplace environment — perpetrated by a core group of four men in the River District and enabled by an administration that excused misconduct and reprisal for years.

  • ‟I don't want them to go and deal with the scum that are in your agency.”

That wasn't the end of the story. Complaints emerged out of other parks. In July, President Obama's Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said that she feared those stories were “just the tip of the iceberg.” And at two congressional hearings over the Park Service this year, Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) berated the NPS. During testimony by Director Jonathan Jarvis, Chaffetz declared that he had a daughter and a daughter-in-law about to enter the workforce; given what he'd learned about women's experiences at the Grand Canyon, he said, “I don't want them to go and deal with the scum that are in your agency.”

Key Findings

  • 20 current or former NPS and Forest Service employees allege harassment, assault or gender discrimination.

  • Their accounts capture a lack of institutional accountability and the vulnerability of working in isolated spaces.

  • Men with repeated reports filed against them were slapped on the wrist or, at worst, allowed to retire or resign.

Despite the strong talk, and a growing tally of scandals, systemic change is not easily achieved at a lumbering, bureaucratic federal agency like the 22,000-member NPS. Even more so now, in the shadow of an election that brought us the president-elect's casual comments on sexual assault, and his selection for Interior Secretary Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT), a former Navy SEAL whose hardline positions on women in the military foretell trouble for reforming an agency that's long modeled itself on military hierarchies, and that has repeatedly demonstrated the same problems in fully accepting women as part of its workforce.

The backlash against the status quo began in March, two months after the OIG report and just as Highline published its piece identifying the alleged offenders and detailing the stories of their victims. That month, the River District office was closed; NPS Director Jarvis sent an all-agency email reminding employees of the Park Service's “zero tolerance” policy for sexual harassment (and pointedly reminding supervisors of their responsibility to act on reports); and 20 members of Congress issued a bipartisan call for the NPS to survey all staff to determine the extent of the problem. “The experience of examining sexual assault and sexual harassment in the military tells us that such cases do not happen in isolation and could be indicative of wider systemic problems,” the representatives wrote.

In May, members of the Defense Department's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office spoke at the Park Service's National Leadership Council meeting about how the agency should respond. And later that month, Director Jarvis asked Grand Canyon Superintendent David Uberuaga, the highest official at the park, to take a position elsewhere, noting that “a change in leadership is needed in order for the Park to move forward.” Central NPS leadership spoke of their plans to implement an anonymous agency-wide survey, to set up a sexual harassment hotline for confidential reports, and instructed park managers to be aware of how “special districts” — isolated and dangerous park areas like the River District or fire and trail posts — can create a unique risk to vulnerable employees.

It sounded fine, but at the Grand Canyon, progress seemed painfully slow to nonexistent. Although the Grand Canyon's superintendent had retired rather than accept a transfer, six months after the OIG report, nobody connected to these claims had been fired — whether direct perpetrators or managers who'd failed to respond. Three of the four perpetrators had been allowed to retire or resign, and one of the men — known as “Boatman 3” in the report, whom my Highline reporting identified as David Loeffler — remained at the park, despite the fact that he was at the center of many of the complaints identified by the OIG.

(Loeffler declined to comment for the Highline story in March, noting that he was still employed by the park. His number has since been disconnected and other attempts to find him were not successful. NPS has confirmed that he was terminated as of December 1, 2016.) Such complaints had come in for a decade.

The fact that Loeffler was still employed left the original group of complainants worried that even the national spotlight provided by the OIG report wouldn't bring substantive change. At an April training event for river guides, another former employee distributed flyers urging the park to take action.

But it wasn't just the boatmen who'd gone unpunished. A companion memorandum by the OIG found that several managers had both mishandled sexual harassment complaint procedures and violated victims' confidentiality. Park Deputy Superintendent Diane Chalfant, the OIG found in the memorandum, had authorized the release of a letter victims initially sent to Secretary of the Interior Jewell — which also included victims' personal testimonies, contact information and home addresses — to two lower managers, who in turn passed them on to other staff, including two of the men accused of harassment and retaliation. According to the memorandum, Chalfant said that “she thought the letter and declarations were 'public documents' and therefore it was permissible to distribute them.”

It was a breach of privacy and protocol. And this year, Chelly Kearney, a former Grand Canyon law enforcement river ranger who had resigned in 2012, submitted written testimony for a Congressional hearing. “This failure by the National Park Service prompted me to file a complaint with the EEOC for discrimination based on a hostile work environment in February 2016 and to file a separate tort claim against the National Park Service in June 2016,” she wrote.

  • ‟There was this looming dismay of 'When will they ever do something?'”

But far from facing repercussions, the three managers — comprising Chalfant (who is named in the OIG report), as well as former Chief Ranger Bill Wright and former River Patrol Supervisor Brian Bloom (unnamed in the OIG report, but identified by title and by sources Highline interviewed) — have maintained their positions or moved up. Chalfant stayed in her role until she retired in November. Bloom is the Supervisory Ranger at the Grand Canyon, and Wright moved on to a position of authority elsewhere in the NPS system, now serving as Superintendent of Chickasaw National Recreational Area in Oklahoma. For a period, Bloom also worked in another park, in Colorado, filling in as a Chief Ranger for another Grand Canyon alumnus. That former River District supervisor, Kearney alleged in a letter to Bill Wright, had once responded to her complaints of sexual harassment by joking, “We used to not call it sexual harassment until the guy whipped out his penis and slapped you across the face with it.”

That's a dynamic that federal employees say is so familiar that it has its own shorthand: “fuck up, move up.”

“It was hard not to start feeling like, 'Will anything ever come of this?” said “Anne,” one of the two women who'd lost her job at the Grand Canyon after enduring years of retaliation over her sexual harassment complaint. Throughout the spring and summer, she continued, “There was this looming dismay of 'When will they ever do something?'”

As the NPS prepared to celebrate its centennial anniversary in August, it endured a long summer of discontent. Legislators in Washington, D.C., at least, appeared to be paying attention. On June 14, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a withering hearing lasting more than two hours — the first of two lacerating public condemnations of the agency — as NPS Director Jarvis was brought before the Committee to answer for problems in NPS management and its failure to act on the revelations of harassment. Since the Grand Canyon report in January, the Committee discovered, only seven of the promised 18 action items had actually been completed.

The Committee's ranking member, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), told Jarvis that the lack of accountability in the NPS reminded him of “an old boys' system,” where indiscretions are winked away. Its chair, Rep. Chaffetz, in addition to calling some NPS staffers “scum,” hounded Jarvis to explain exactly what he meant by “zero tolerance” which Chaffetz mocked, saying “it doesn't sound like it means anything.”

Rep. Robin Kelly (D-IL) asked Jarvis why the implementation of “action items” had been delayed, including discipline for the remaining main perpetrator at the park. Jarvis responded that protections for federal employees sometimes tied the agency's hands when it came to firing staff. But a representative of the OIG also testifying that day, Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall, said that her office had instead encountered an NPS that “avoids discipline altogether and attempts to address misconduct by transferring the employee to other duties or to simply counsel the employee” — which “is viewed by other employees as condoning behavior.” One result, Kendall testified, was that “across the Park Service there is fear to report misconduct.” With disgust, several members of the Committee implied that Jarvis should step down from his post.

The criticism didn't end there. In a letter that Reps. Chaffetz and Cummings and two others sent to Jarvis in July, they decried the agency's failure to take final action against any senior personnel after the OIG report, and mocked its talk of reform. Noting previous NPS reform efforts following an EEO complaint in 1999, the representatives wrote, “The Park Service has been aware of problems with sexual harassment since 2000, but it is responding to these more recent incidents with yet another survey.”

It wasn't lost on the committee members that, just one day prior to their June hearing, a new OIG report had been issued, documenting a similar pattern at Florida's Canaveral National Seashore, where a law enforcement supervisor maintained his position despite repeated sexual harassment complaints in two years. For five years, the OIG found, the supervisor had allegedly harassed three park employees, taking one to the home of an elderly volunteer and luring her to a bedroom, where he allegedly grabbed her and tried to convince her to have sex; commenting continually on another's appearance, asking her on dates, and talking to her about sexually explicit movies; and repeatedly calling another on her personal phone to ask her out.

Despite the congressional condemnation (and a petition to the White House demanding Jarvis's ouster launched by the California-based group Save Our Recreation), the NPS National Leadership Council, a body of top NPS managers, declared in July that Jarvis had their “full support” and that they had asked him to stay through the end of his term in 2017.

The bad news continued in September: further reports of sexual harassment and hostile work environments from two more high-profile parks: Yosemite and Yellowstone. At Yosemite, 18 employees had alleged an environment of harassment or bullying — reports that were further complicated by the fact that the park's superintendent was married to one of the regional NPS deputy directors charged with overseeing complaints. (Both have since retired.) At Yellowstone, the OIG had begun investigating allegations that women working in the special projects division were subjected to predatory behavior by supervisors.

September also marked the second House hearing on NPS, when Mike Reynolds, the new Deputy Director of Operations (replacing O'Dell), was brought before the Committee. Reynolds spoke of what the agency had accomplished since the June hearing: moving some personnel, and implementing mandatory training at both parks raised in the June hearing. Reynolds also said the agency would be creating an ombudsman's office, a confidential reporting mechanism, and “mandatory 14-day deadlines for completing anti-harassment inquiries,” as well as employee affinity groups — “a safe place if you will” — where women can discuss their concerns and bring them to management.

To the House committee members, however, all this sounded familiar. Recalling an agency task force created in 2000 to address harassment and gender discrimination, Rep. Cummings reminded Reynolds that, by the agency's own admission, few of that task force's 30 recommendations had ever been implemented.

“That task force report was filed away, put on a shelf, gathering dust, ignored. Sixteen years later, the Inspector General has issued a report finding, and I quote, 'evidence of a long-term pattern of harassment and hostile workforce environment,' ” said Cummings. “Our Committee should continue to hold hearings on the Park Service every 99 days until all employees feel safe!”

Testifying besides Reynolds were two NPS employees: Brian Healy, the fisheries program manager at the Grand Canyon, who'd witnessed the park's ineffective response to harassment and retaliation for years; and Kelly Martin, the Chief of Fire and Aviation Management at Yosemite, who says she faced repeated sexual harassment throughout her 32-year career with the NPS and Forest Service. Martin said that in her decades of working in the NPS and Forest Service, she had coped with a ranger at the Grand Canyon peeping through her bathroom window; a colleague who put pictures of her up in a government vehicle and cornered her in her office to try to kiss her; and a supervisor who ran his fingers through her hair at a work meeting — an incident which, when she reported it, resulted in “the appalling reply … 'It's his word against yours.'”

Both Martin and Healy said they were testifying despite fear of reprisal.

“Based on my experiences, I feel as if my career and my safety and the safety of other employees at the park may be at some risk,” said Healy.  

“That's a hell of a statement, and it is one that I feel pained that you even have to think it let alone say it,” said Rep. Cummings, who has previously led efforts address sexual misconduct within other bodies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States Merchant Marine Academy and federal internships. He later went on to tell Reynolds, his voice at some points rising to a shout, that if the NPS continued to treat the issue as it had in the past — “with a memo for a refresher course” — victims would continue to be in jeopardy.

“Let me send a message to all those who are thinking about retaliating,” said Cummings, “we will come after you with everything we've got. There's no way we'll correct this culture if you have to be in fear and they have the position that they can do whatever they want and get away with it.”

As Secretary Jewell noted in July, the National Park Service may have seen only the beginning of reports of broader problems. In his June testimony, Director Jarvis agreed, noting that his consultations with the Department of Defense — no stranger to systemic sexual assault and gender discrimination — led him to believe the problem was likely widespread.

“General [Camille] Nichols, who leads [the DoD Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response], indicated that if you have this level of pervasion in one place, it's an indicator that you may have it in other parts,” said Jarvis. He also predicted that, as the Park Service implements new tools to encourage reporting and accountability, many more stories may emerge. “Frankly, as we take this on aggressively you're going to see more.”

And it won't just be within the NPS. In early December, the House oversight panel addressed other issues covered in the Highline story: how the same pattern of sexual harassment, hostile workplaces and retaliation has gone unchecked for decades in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service. Testifying before the committee were two women profiled in the Highline report: Lesa Donnelly, a former Forest Service employee and longtime advocate for women in the agency, and Denice Rice, whose allegations of egregious sexual harassment, assault and retaliation were a focus of that story. For three years, Rice said in an emotional interview, she was routinely harassed and groped by a supervisor, and when she finally complained, she believed her career was derailed.

Whether real reform is on the horizon depends on the agencies' response. Changing large institutional cultures is always difficult. But the lessons of another organization that has confronted the same issues may help.

The Defense Department's SAPRO office, which was first founded as a task force in 2004 amid a wave of reports of military sexual assault, has been so successful that other government agencies, as well as colleges and universities facing epidemic reports of sexual assault, have turned to it for guidance and practical tools. In the 10 years since SAPRO did its first workplace survey, reports of sexual assault in the military have increased 240 percent, but the overall incidence of assault appears to have declined dramatically: by around one-third for women and around a half for men, SAPRO says. That seeming contradiction, SAPRO says, actually reflects an environment where victims feel better supported to report.

Getting to that place required a different approach than either the military or the larger culture had taken previously.

“What we see in some places in the country is still a real compliance-based approach to culture. So as long as the correct posters are hung and we've met the minimums of some set of rules, everything is OK, that you've complied with a set of rules so your work here is done … and if there's an issue, it's an HR-type issue,” said SAPRO's Chief of Staff Col. James R. Twiford. “What our organizational experience shows is that these core areas of culture require leaders to directly hone in on an issue and not only talk that talk but walk it and continually demonstrate what right looks like for that organization.” For that to happen, added SAPRO Deputy Director Dr. Nate Galbreath, rank-and-file members of an organization must buy into sexual harassment policy and be trained in bystander intervention, and leadership needs to conduct “climate surveys” — as the military now does — to assess a unit's workplace in terms of sexual misconduct and then use the survey results to assess commanders.

Whether or not these lessons will be heeded under the coming administration is another question. The NPS will now likely come under the leadership of Rep. Ryan Zinke, Trump's designated Interior Secretary, who this year co-sponsored a bill requiring women to register for the draft as a deliberate attempt to reignite debate over women serving in combat — a development Zinke staunchly opposed as a Montana State Senator. In 2013, when the Obama administration announced that it would drop the longtime prohibition on women serving in combat, Zinke responded forcefully, warning that “This is not a Demi Moore movie.” He suggested that the move would lead to “unintended consequences,” that it “jeopardizes the capability to carry out the mission,” that it “weakens the force,” and that it's a “distraction.” Those are troubling words for someone likely to soon oversee the quasi-military Park Service, where employees report that lingering attitudes opposing women's full participation in the service have exacerbated sexual harassment and gender discrimination.

About the reporter

Kathryn Joyce

Kathryn Joyce

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