When she was growing up in the Midwest, Olivia and her family vacationed at national parks every year. They piled into the car and drove hundreds of miles to parks and monuments and historic sites great and small—from Badlands, South Dakota, to Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico, and from California’s Sequoia to Acadia in Maine. Each time she discovered a new park, particularly the remote, low-key ones everyone else seemed to forget, Olivia would exclaim, “This is it! This is the park I’m going to work at.”
In 2010, at 20 years old, she landed her dream job through the Student Conservation Association: an internship at Death Valley National Park in Southern California. A sharp-tongued, witty young woman with cascading brown hair, Olivia packed up and drove 2,200 miles from home to one of the nation’s driest and most desolate national parks. One evening, about three weeks in, she asked her 21-year-old housemate, who also worked for the National Park Service, for a ride to a coworker’s house several miles up the desert road, where she was housesitting for the weekend. When they arrived, rather than just dropping her off, the young man invited himself in.
Uncomfortable being alone with him, she said she was sleepy and feigned a yawn. He didn’t take the hint. He moved towards her, attempting to flirt, she thought, and suddenly started tickling her. She tried to wriggle free, pushing him several times, but he grabbed her and wouldn’t let go. Then, to her horror, he shoved her to the floor and pinned her down.
Olivia yelled, kicked, screamed, but his knees pushed down harder and his tight grip held her wrists above her head. Tears in her eyes, Olivia pleaded with the man. “You’re hurting me,” she said.
Olivia, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, tells me about the incident as we sit at the kitchen table in her roomy Death Valley apartment, a mile from her old dorm as the crow flies. It’s a 120-degree evening in July, and three fans blow full-blast, scattering notes and magazines. Olivia, who just got off work, is still wearing her Park Service uniform. The year after the incident, she returned to Death Valley to work as a ranger. As the sunset turns the desert a hazy pink, Olivia takes a deep breath. Six years later, the memory of the assault still makes her shudder.
“I didn’t know to call it sexual assault then,” Olivia tells me. “It took me a long time to start dealing with it, even though I worked at the park. I’d close my eyes and see him there.”
I’ve heard many such stories over the last 11 months. In January 2016, the Department of the Interior released a report revealing that female employees of the River District of the Grand Canyon had been sexually harassed for years, and that park and regional administrators had known and failed to stop it. Since then, women working in parks, monuments and historic sites across the country have come forward alleging on-the-job sexual harassment, assault and gender discrimination. Many of them, like Olivia, are worried about retaliation and have asked to remain anonymous.
This year, over 60 current and former Park Service employees contacted High Country News, describing their experiences. I have interviewed many of them and others, in total at least 50 people—from park rangers and scientists, to superintendents and a former Park Service director—ranging in age from 23 to 70. Their testimony reveals an agency that has failed to protect its workers from sexual misconduct. Several factors contribute to this: a murky internal process for reporting and investigating complaints; a longstanding culture of machismo that dates to the agency’s foundation; and a history of retaliation against those who speak out.
Olivia’s assailant sat on top of her for about 20 minutes. When he finally stood up, she moved to the couch. He followed, trying to kiss her and pull her on top of him. She was sure he would rape her, but eventually, after more struggle, he left. The moment the door banged shut, Olivia fell to the floor, sobbing. She walked to the bathroom and stared in the mirror, brushed her teeth harder than she ever had, as if to erase something. The next morning, Olivia took a long drive through the park’s sand dunes and salt flats with a friend, who convinced her to tell park administrators what happened. She went to the park’s chief ranger and described the incident in detail. He jotted down notes and told her that she had a choice: She could either press charges, or let the park handle it internally.
Unaware that there was a formal complaint process, Olivia said that the park could handle it, and left. Two days later, her supervisor, her alleged assailant’s supervisor and the park’s chief of interpretation—another high-level employee—asked her to recount the incident for the third time. Afterwards, the chief of interpretation told her they had talked to her alleged assailant. It was all just a “misunderstanding,” he said, and he would not move forward with her case.
The park did agree to transfer the man to another dorm, but it took nearly a week for supervisors to act, and on the day he was supposed to leave, she found him in the dorm kitchen, eating cereal. She thought she would collapse. When he finally did move, it was to the dorm across the parking lot.
Days later, according to documents obtained through a Freedom of Information request, Olivia’s supervisor emailed the chief of interpretation to tell him another intern had concerns about the same young man. He responded: “Thanks for ... trying to keep the rumors from really taking off. I’m glad to hear [Olivia] is getting back into a better frame of mind, but I hope [she] is not creating an uncomfortable environment for [him] if it is not warranted. Something to watch out for.”
The chief of interpretation encouraged her to keep quiet about the incident. Feeling ashamed, she did. She finished her internship, graduated from college and started working in other parks. She returned to Death Valley as a seasonal employee the next year and has worked there ever since. But the experience taught her to mistrust the system.
“They really have no reporting mechanism,” she says. “They say, ‘Talk to your supervisor.’ What if your supervisor fails you? That’s it; you hit a brick wall, the first person you tell. It rests solely on those individuals as to whether or not they will further your cause.”
The problem may be systemic, but it impacts real people—both women and men, people who love national parks and believe that they have a vocation to protect them. They are confronted with horrible choices: Report incidents and risk retaliation; keep silent and carry on; or leave the Park Service altogether. And while the agency has promised reform time and again, dozens of interviews, incident data and documents show that it has an incredible amount of work ahead.
The legal processes for handling workplace sexual-harassment in federal agencies are complex and relatively new. Sex discrimination became a legally defensible charge in 1964, when it was incorporated into the Civil Rights Act. In the late 1970s, the term “sexual harassment” came into use to describe unwanted sexual advances in the workplace. In 1991, Congress amended the law to include the right for jury trials and to allow plaintiffs to sue for emotional and physical suffering. The number of claims jumped from 6,883 to over 10,000 within a year.
The most common charge today is “hostile work environment,” which refers to regular or severe unwanted sexual advances, or sexually charged language or conduct. The behavior in question can range from physical touching to repeatedly asking a coworker for a date. Harassment and discrimination laws are enforced by an independent federal agency, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, based in Washington, D.C. It’s a presidentially appointed committee that will soon be under the Donald Trump administration.
In the private sector, the EEO process for sexual-harassment complaints is relatively simple, says Rick Rossein, an employment lawyer and professor who litigated landmark sexual-harassment cases in the 1970s and 1980s. Once a charge is filed, the EEOC has 180 days to investigate, after which the complainant can sue in federal district court.
But in federal agencies, it’s much more complicated, making system failures more likely. An employee who wants to file a complaint must first contact an EEO counselor. This is typically a Park Service employee who volunteers, in addition to his or her primary job, to walk employees through the complaint process. The counselor talks to both the accuser and accused and tries to resolve the issue. If the complainant wants to move forward with an informal complaint, the parties go through more mediation. If the complainant is not satisfied with the outcome and decides to file a formal complaint, the Park Service conducts an investigation. If the Department of Interior director of the Office of Civil Rights decides that the investigation reveals discrimination, the agency can take disciplinary action against the accused, like demotion or firing—but it is not required. Afterward, the complainant is entitled to a hearing with the EEOC, adjudicated by an administrated law judge, or can sue the Interior Department in federal court.
Cases tend to break down at several points. The EEOC has a reporting deadline of 45 days after an incident, but victims of sexual harassment, assault or rape commonly wait months or years to report their experiences. The women who do come forward are just the tip of the iceberg, Rossein said. “Below the sea, the ice represents a large group of women that for whatever reason—usually because of retaliation, or fear for upending their careers, or these lengthy processes—a lot of people who have probably good claims aren’t filing them.”
Second, victims who do want to report incidents may not know how. Many lower-level employees, interns, and contractors are not aware of agency procedure or sexual harassment law, and not all seasonal employees and interns receive sexual harassment training. Fifteen women who contacted HCN—a quarter of those who did—said they had not heard of the EEO process or ever learned how to report sexual harassment.
Third, EEO counselors sometimes lack adequate training, and they face tight deadlines to resolve complaints. There are only 47 counselors nationwide to assist the Park Service’s 23,000 employees. And Park Service employees who conduct investigations can be inexperienced in dealing with harassment. EEO Commissioner Chai Feldblum notes that investigations can be hampered by interference, bias and haste, with investigators rushing through cases. “If we get reports saying this is a systemic problem, the EEOC has the authority to do an on-site visit and look at their overall process.”
Finally, a victim who decides to sue in federal court must face the Department of the Interior in U.S. district court and be prepared to rehash her story repeatedly, travel long distances for hearings, and sit through numerous proceedings, a process that usually takes over a year. In some cases, plaintiffs are then placed under non-disclosure agreements. If all else fails, a victim can contact the Office of Inspector General at the Interior Department, but the OIG investigates the incident, files a report and turns it over to the Park Service.
Even if a plaintiff eventually receives a settlement, the agency is not required to discipline the accused or to hold them accountable. In testimony before Congress in June, Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that it is “very difficult” to fire a federal employee.
Instead, the Park Service has allowed alleged perpetrators to retire, resign or be transferred to other parks. In 1998, Yellowstone Chief Ranger Dan Sholly was accused of sexual misconduct and transferred to a Florida park. This year, the superintendent of Canaveral National Seashore in Florida, who was in charge while employees were sexually harassed for years by a chief ranger, was put on a detail for the Southeast Regional Office and allowed to work from home. Grand Canyon Superintendent Dave Uberuaga was asked to leave the park in January; when offered another job in Washington, D.C., he chose retirement. The superintendent of Yosemite, Don Neubacher, was accused in September of gender discrimination and of creating a hostile work environment; he was offered a job as special assistant to the deputy director before he decided to retire.
There are few satisfying outcomes for victims, and perpetrators are rarely punished. The system itself acts as a deterrent for reporting, leaving many victims frustrated and silent for years—sometimes for their entire careers.
About an hour east of Billings, Montana, between steep canyons and the prairie grass plains of the Crow Agency Reservation, is Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. The tiny park, managed by the National Park Service, is a memorial to the site where thousands of Lakota and Cheyenne fought Lt. Col. George Custer’s 7th Cavalry in 1876. In August, I traveled there to speak with several current and former Little Bighorn employees who reported sexual harassment, hostile work environment and retaliation.
One of them, Zoe, met me on a Thursday night at a crowded restaurant in downtown Billings, where we sat at the bar. She was reluctant to come, she said; nearly four years after her time at the monument, she found it difficult to forget her experience. Born and raised in Billings, Zoe, whose name has been changed for her protection, is a single mother of two kids. She left her well-paying job at the Park Service in 2013 because of a hostile work-environment. “I still have a sour taste in my mouth about the NPS,” she told me. “They didn’t take care of me.”
In 2013, Zoe took a job as a natural-resource specialist under one of the monument’s chief supervisors. Throughout the hiring process, she said, the chief texted her to ask her out for drinks, to parties, or to talk about her recent divorce. She repeatedly turned him down or made excuses to avoid meeting him.
The advances continued after she began work, making her feel uncomfortable. Zoe told the park superintendent, Denice Swanke, about it, but she suspects that the chief immediately found out. “After that discussion, the work environment has gotten substantially worse,” she wrote in an EEO complaint two months later. “He is very aggressive towards me.”
At the same time, Zoe’s coworker, Eric Clanton, reported his own problems with the chief, who was also his supervisor. In an interview at a coffee shop in downtown Billings, Clanton told me that the chief asked him to narrow down female intern applicants based on their Facebook pictures, something Clanton was not willing to do. Clanton also said that in 2013, when he was picking up a new intern at the airport, the chief texted him, asking if she was “hot like she was in her picture.” “He kept asking questions about her,” Clanton said.
After they reported the incidents to the park superintendent and called the human resources department and EEO counselors at the Denver regional office, Clanton and Zoe each filed hostile work environment EEO complaints. About two months later, a contracted investigator contacted them to discuss the issue but as far as they know, he never visited the park. Zoe offered to show him text messages, emails, notes and employee evaluations as evidence, but says he declined to take them. Discouraged, they both left the Park Service for other jobs by the end of that year. “I was disheartened talking to HR,” Clanton said. “I hung in as long as I could.”
Zoe told me she kept the emails, text messages, and negative evaluations until January this year, but erased them shortly before I made contact with her. Shaking her head, she said she had held out hope until then that someone from the Park Service would contact her about the case. But no one ever did.
A year later, in 2014, another Little Bighorn employee, Kristine Brunsman, then 25, reported to the Intermountain Region EEO counselor that the same chief supervisor was creating a hostile work environment for her and several female employees and interns. The EEO counselor told her she lacked enough evidence to file a harassment complaint and advised her to talk to her superintendent first. Brunsman told Swanke she was considering filing an EEO complaint. Brunsman remembers her saying, “Do you really want it to go this far? Because, you know, sometimes people say things and they don’t think about the consequences.”
I spoke to Swanke at the park administrative office in late August and asked her about Zoe, Clanton and Brunsman’s experiences. Swanke said that only one employee had ever spoken to her about sexual harassment or a hostile work environment. In an email in November, she said that the park followed protocol for “investigations and followup actions” regarding allegations against the chief. Today, Swanke is deputy superintendent of Denali National Park in Alaska. The chief was transferred to Shenendoah National Park in Virginia after the 2015 investigation.
However, Brunsman told me that when the chief found out about her complaint, he gave her a poor evaluation and began requiring her to notify him whenever she left the park on weekends. After she made repeated calls to the regional office, alleging a hostile work environment, in mid-February 2015, the Park Service dispatched an investigator to interview employees. The interns who had been having trouble with the chief had already left the park, however, and returned to school. Brunsman and two other former employees said they never heard from the investigator after that visit. “It was very isolating,” Brunsman told me while we talked outside Park Service headquarters in Washington, D.C., where she now works. “And at some point you start to question, am I making things up? Is this not real?”
These cases show how challenging it is for employees to prove they are being mistreated. For most, it’s much easier to leave—which is partly why the agency still struggles with recruiting and retaining female employees. Before the system can change, the agency will have to confront its own macho culture, something that is embedded in its very foundation.
The National Park Service was created in 1916. For 100 years, the agency has struggled to move beyond the male-dominated, somewhat militaristic culture established in its early days, a leftover from the late 19th century, when the U.S. Army was enlisted to protect Yellowstone, the first national park, from rampant poaching. For decades, women were involved only in a limited capacity—mostly as secretaries, tour guides and assistants to their husbands. When the Civil Rights Act forbade sex discrimination in 1964, the agency was forced to allow women to receive training and become park rangers. But even then, they were called ranger-historians or ranger-naturalists. Only in 1971 were female employees allowed to have law enforcement training, carry guns and be considered “real” park rangers.
Since then, the Park Service has come a long way in recruiting and promoting women. Today, it’s easy to find women in supervisory positions in every region and almost every park. About 44 percent of supervisors and 37 percent of superintendents are women. But only two agency directors have been women, and out of 23,000 employees today, only 8,700 are female.
The male-dominated culture extends beyond this gender ratio. While women are no longer prohibited from applying for positions, they are often made to feel unwelcome in other ways, according to internal documents and dozens of interviews with former and current Park Service employees.
In 2000, an employee survey found that over half of female rangers and three-quarters of female park police had experienced sexual harassment on the job. Almost three-quarters said they experienced discrimination, and over half described the Park Service as “poor” at enforcing no-retaliation policies. In response, the Park Service created a task force that planned to implement a hotline for victims, expand harassment training, and work with individual parks to improve the agency’s culture. But these plans never came to fruition, and the task force was dismantled in 2002.
Despite these findings, top administrators expressed shock when the news of harassment at the Grand Canyon broke. Some insisted it was an anomaly. It was not.
In 2014, 13 employees sent a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, alleging sexual harassment, gender -discrimination and retaliation by male boatmen and supervisors in the Grand Canyon’s River District. An Office of Inspector General investigation found a “long-term pattern of sexual harassment and hostile work environment,” corroborated by 22 witnesses. The report also noted that Superintendent Dave Uberuaga and Intermountain Region Director Sue Masica were aware of the hostility female employees faced, and that Uberuaga had not taken immediate disciplinary action when he learned of the problem.
In June this year, another OIG report said a chief ranger repeatedly sexually harassed female employees in Florida’s Canaveral National Seashore. In September, at least 18 women in Yosemite accused Superintendent Don Neubacher of gender discrimination, bullying and public humiliation. That same week, a whistleblower reported that supervisors at Yellowstone National Park were sexually exploiting female employees. In October, an Interior Department investigation found that a supervisor at Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, in Georgia, inappropriately touched two female colleagues several times in 2014 and 2016. When the women reported this to the superintendent, he did not investigate or report the claims to the EEOC.
Publicly, agency leaders seemed surprised each time a new report was released. They should not have been. Many employees have spent decades, even entire careers, fighting discrimination and harassment.
On a warm August afternoon, Joan Anzelmo took me on a whirlwind tour of Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park. Anzelmo retired from the agency six years ago after 35 years of service, but she still wears her responsibility to the agency heavily. Her car was littered with maps, but she had memorized nearly every inch of the park. Now 62, she lives in Jackson, within a short cross-country ski of the park. She walks with a cane because of aggressive arthritis in her ankles, but still moves quickly, taking hikes and bike rides near her old cabin in Moose. She talks even more rapidly, unworried by others’ opinions and yet always filtered, trained by a career in public relations. “Looking back at my career, I feel so grateful,” she told me as she stopped the car to watch a herd of bison. “I like to acknowledge the good, but also understand the history all of this has its foundations in.”
Originally from Washington, D.C., Anzelmo began her career working in the national visitor center. In 1980, two years after women were allowed to wear official ranger uniforms instead of skirts and scarves, she headed West for the first time, belting out “Home on the Range” in her new Mustang hatchback. Like most young park employees, she envisioned a lifelong career of protecting public lands. “I moved in just when women were starting to be heard about being treated more equally, respectfully,” she said. “I really worked hard to earn respect for my work.”
When she began working as Yellowstone’s public-information officer, she soon noticed the culture’s engrained machismo: the crude jokes and comments, vulgar words written on the walls. But she never experienced any harassment that she felt obligated to report, she said, and she feels lucky to have had supportive male bosses.
By the time she was 41, working as chief of public affairs at Grand Teton, Anzelmo’s perspective had shifted. She began paying more attention to her EEO training courses, making sure she understood how harassment, discrimination and retaliation were manifested. When she saw comments on the walls, she asked employees to remove them, or did it herself. When she heard catcalls in the field, she called people out.
But tackling harassment was hard. “You’d like to think if you become aware of harassment, if employees come in and say, ‘This person is saying these things, following me down the hall, commenting on my appearance,’ and you feel those complaints are valid, it can be cleaned up pretty quickly,” she said. “That’s your hope, right?”
The system wasn’t as effective as it should have been. In 2007, Anzelmo was promoted to superintendent of Colorado National Monument. By then, she finally understood why it was so difficult to fire employees. Procedurally, the process took nearly as much time outside of work as all of her other duties combined. “You have to commit yourself to go the extra mile,” she said, which is why so many people in the agency don’t push it. Enforcing a disciplinary action can take the equivalent of several weeks’ worth of work, and the process can last from a few months to a year. It requires a review with the employee, an improvement plan, gradual withdrawal of certain duties, and, simultaneously, calls and emails to the employee relations office.
The year she arrived at Colorado National Monument, a male employee took a woman to a remote location in the park after hours and assaulted her. After Anzelmo learned of it, she made many calls and sent emails, even exchanged “fighting words” with the Intermountain Regional Office in Denver to speed up the process. Although the act was egregious and the accused had been previously reported for his behavior, the process took four months. The man resigned the day he was supposed to be fired, she says.
As we hiked a short trail to the 7,720-foot summit of Signal Mountain, Anzelmo stopped, gathered her breath, and thought carefully. Her belief in the Park Service’s mission never waned, but as she moved up the ranks, she began to consider the agency more critically. “I think if there is more of a reflection of this agency—of why, at 100 years, are we acknowledging this now—is it in the culture? Has this culture been allowed to proliferate? It has to be the wake-up call.”
Along with a complicated system and a culture of -machismo, one of the greatest deterrents to reporting harassment or discrimination is the fear of retaliation. According to the EEOC, this is the most common complaint in the federal sector. Retaliation can occur as a response to someone rejecting sexual advances, cooperating with investigators, filing a complaint or being an official witness to one. Of the 61 current and former Park Service employees who contacted HCN, 21 said they were retaliated against for reporting misconduct. Twenty others said they were afraid to report for fear of retaliation.
A recent nationwide EEOC report found that about 85 percent of people who experienced workplace harassment—sexual or otherwise—never file a legal claim, and nearly 70 percent don’t even tell their own supervisor. “They’re afraid,” said the EEOC’s Feldblum, who co-wrote the report with EEO Commissioner Victoria Lipnic. “And that fear is often well-justified.”
“It’s hard to believe there isn’t an awareness of (retaliation),” JT Reynolds, a former deputy superintendent of Grand Canyon, told me. In a phone interview in August, Reynolds said he either saw or experienced retaliation throughout his “entire career.” He received multiple complaints from women about the gender wage gap, unfair treatment by supervisors, sexual harassment and the lack of opportunities for promotion. Reynolds helped several female law enforcement rangers at the Grand Canyon file EEO reports, and in 2000 he called for an investigation of the park. When the regional office found out about it, Reynolds told me, the investigators and regional office ostracized him. “There are plenty of us who will stand up for what’s right, but we have no power,” he told me.
In 2002, Reynolds wrote a scathing response to the Intermountain Region’s 2000 investigation of Grand Canyon, criticizing the fact that it was done internally, rather than by an independent contractor. “Amazingly, the investigation was handled with such bias and so incompetently by regional staff and with such a pre-disposition to exonerate alleged violators and gloss over actual events,” he wrote. He said he never received a reply. Reynolds wasn’t alone in his concerns about the investigation; J.R. Tomasovic, the acting chief ranger at the time, told me earlier this year that he was given only 90 days to look into personnel concerns—including gender discrimination—at the park, even though it needed “long-term intervention,” because “management didn’t listen to (women) or take their concerns seriously.”
While working as chief ranger for the Intermountain Region and North Atlantic Region (later consolidated into the Northeast Region), Reynolds said he saw many examples of regional directors punishing the victims and witnesses rather than the men accused. For instance, he said, one woman told him her superintendent was sexually harassing her. He helped investigate the claims by talking to witnesses and building a case to get the accused fired, but the regional director decided to deal with it “administratively” instead, and transferred the man to another park. Reynolds said he received a poor evaluation from his supervisor for taking action.
Dozens of employees told me that retaliation remains an overwhelming fear in the agency. Dan Hall, a river guide in the Grand Canyon, claims he was a target for retaliation after he stood up against the misogyny. “In the words of the investigators, I was ‘blacklisted,’” he said. He was taken off river-guiding duty, even though he was often first on the list prior to his involvement in the investigation. According to the OIG report from the Grand Canyon investigation, male boatmen wouldn’t train women who reported them, and even withheld food on river trips. Brunsman, who worked at Little Bighorn, said she was moved to an office away from her colleagues as retaliation for filing her EEO complaint.
Reynolds, who retired from the Park Service in 2009 and is now a fourth-grade teacher in Henderson, Nevada, still gets fired up about these issues. “Not many people want to go through that, so they remain silent,” he said, his voice rising. “It’s up to superintendents, and the regional directors and the NPS director to have the integrity to not allow employees to feel as if someone’s going to get them, or lose an opportunity.”
Since the problem of gender discrimination and sexual harassment in the National Park Service hit the national spotlight with this year’s Grand Canyon investigation, the agency has started to address it. The Park Service repeatedly declined to comment on this story, but Director Jarvis promised a new direct hotline for victims to report incidents—though it’s unclear when it will be implemented. The agency-wide survey he announced last February may help clarify the breadth of the problem, though it won’t reach some of the most vulnerable employees, such as seasonal employees or interns. Jeffrey Olson, public affairs officer for the Park Service, said that the survey will begin in January 2017.
Andrew Munoz, the Pacific West Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) manager and public information officer, told HCN that in recent months there has been more pressure on EEO specialists to follow up on harassment reports so that fewer of them slip through the cracks. Currently, there is a lack of solid data on sexual harassment in the agency. The same goes for sexual assault: Only formal complaints or investigations are tracked. In documents HCN acquired through a FOIA request, reports aren’t broken down by gender, and there is no way to know if the complaint involves discrimination or sexual harassment. From 2002 to 2016, for example, 110 formal EEO complaints in the Park Service had the word “sex” in their description.
But there are several immediate steps the Park Service could take to improve the system.
The Park Service has begun “providing greater clarity to managers and employees about existing reporting and investigation options,” Olson said. “We are working with the field to continue developing consistency in reporting and accountability.” He also said the agency is hiring three new EEO staff in the Washington, D.C., office to handle complaints.
An experienced, dedicated anti-harassment task force within the Park Service would be ideal, but that depends on the agency’s budget, according to EEO Commissioner Feldblum. For its part, she said, the EEOC’s responsibility is to make sure the Park Service is doing thorough investigations and that its investigators are adequately trained and able to act independently.
The Park Service could also improve sexual harassment training for employees and managers. Currently, the training consists of a 30-minute click-through video on EEOC regulations—something multiple people told HCN was “a joke.” Meanwhile, managers lack training on the subtler forms of sexual harassment and discrimination.
The truth is that Park Service officials have had many years to address these flaws, and have simply failed to do so. But culture and policies can be changed. Thousands of employees, including Olivia, believe in the agency and would gladly work to improve the system.
Just a week before we met in July, Olivia had a chance to face Director Jarvis. She was attending a training workshop in the Grand Canyon, surrounded by dozens of Park Service employees, and Jarvis was in his Washington, D.C., office, hosting a videoconference on sexual harassment. Olivia had planned this moment in her head for days, writing her thoughts on a scrap of notebook paper. Jarvis asked if there were any questions, and Olivia was the first to raise her hand.
“We had a voluntary session about the sexual harassment issue,” she began. “I want you to know this is important. It is prevalent. And people are depending on a better environment for the future.” She asked about the survey and what he hoped to accomplish. Then, choking up, she added: “As you can see, this is a personal issue for me.”
Jarvis promised that he was taking the issue and the survey seriously, but said it would be a long process. He may have been trying to manage expectations, but Olivia found it a tepid response at best. She stood a moment longer, facing the video monitor and the director. She wanted him to know her face, remember her. After six years of silence, of second-guessing herself and feeling alone, Olivia was speaking out—not just for herself, but also the many women who have had similar, or worse, experiences. When she sat down, a wave of emotion rushed over her. The women in the class—some older, others her peers—patted her on the back and told her that she had done a great job. Some, still afraid to speak openly, shared their stories with her. Olivia had added her voice to the growing ranks of Park Service employees who want their agency, entrusted with protecting America’s greatest treasures, to finally confront its dark legacy.
And, like so many others, she refuses to give up hope. “All the people who are disgusted by this, who want to effect change, we’re speaking up and moving up the ranks,” she said. “Maybe now, the tide is going to turn.”
Since February 2016, 87 people—61 of them former or current National Park Service employees and the other 26 employed by other federal agencies, such as the BLM and Forest Service—have contacted High Country News, alleging on-the-job sexual harassment, assault or gender discrimination. You can read some of their accounts on HCN’s website, where this article originally appeared.