‘Toxic work culture’ at National Park Service needs cleaning up

Despite ongoing efforts to address sexual harassment reports and whistleblower retaliation at the National Park Service, Congress says there's more work to be d...

The first time Kelly Martin claims she was sexually harassed during her career with the National Park Service, she was 24-years-old and taking a shower.

The Peeping Tom who in 1987 peered into the window of her apartment bathroom, was wearing a park ranger uniform for the Albright Training Center on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. After reporting the incident to two supervisors, Martin got an apology and a promise it would never happen again. The man remained with the park service, eventually retiring as a deputy superintendent.

Martin alleges two other instances of sexual harassment — a second time while working with the park service at the Grand Canyon, and another while working with the U.S. Forest Service — and the fear and frustration that accompanied her as she struggled to balance justice with her job, will be included in upcoming memos to both presidential candidates’ transition teams about the “toxic work culture” of the National Park Service.

“Maybe it’s time to get … some of the rotten apples still in the barrel, out of the barrel,” said Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wy.), adding she would be asking the chairman and ranking member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee to draw up the memos. “Because this has been tolerated — it has not been swept under the rug and now some of the people in leadership positions are just finding out about it — it has been tolerated, and it appears people have tolerated this in order to advance their careers into the highest positions in the National Park Service. It is time to ferret out that kind of toxic culture.”

Martin testified Sept. 22 before the oversight committee, alongside Brian Healy, fisheries program manager for the Grand Canyon National Park, as whistleblowers for sexual harassment within the park service. The hearing comes nearly 100 days after park service officials, including NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis, pledged to address the “significant problem” of sexual harassment within the agency.

Michael Reynolds, deputy director of operations at NPS, said that since the June hearing before the oversight committee, the park service has taken a number of steps to make changes “that are undeniably necessary.”

Among them: Closing the Grand Canyon National Park’s River District in terms of rangers running the program, hiring a new superintendent at the Grand Canyon, acting on 18 action-item recommendations from the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General, removing a chief ranger at Canaveral National Seashore (CANA) accused of sexual harassment, and moving the CANA superintendent to a regional office.

Reynolds said employees at both parks are receiving mandatory sexual harassment prevention education, while across the entire park service, employees and managers are getting similar online training. NPS is also standing up a hotline and ombudsman office, and will be conducting a service-wide workforce harassment survey.

“Culture change begins with leadership commitment and accountability, and is sustained through ongoing training, education and employee engagement,” Reynolds said. “In our centennial year, NPS leadership has refocused on what we want the service to look like in its second century, and are committed to a transparent process focused on accountability, to make the improvements our employees want and deserve. This needs to be done very urgently.” 

Bullying not confined to National Park Service’s River District

But Healy said the “culture of bullying and harassment” isn’t limited to the River District, nor have all the problems been addressed.

Healy said he reported in 2013 multiple instances of bullying and threatening behavior from the Grand Canyon trail crew and program manager.

The reports included retaliatory behavior toward an assault victim, who’d reported the assault to law enforcement. Her identity was shared with crew members and she was labeled with an “expletive” by the crew. A female senior manager was referenced with a “misogynistic” slur by the trail crew program manager, which was reported by a witness. That witness, Healy said, was threatened twice with violence by the program manager.

An investigation into these reports was only opened in 2016, and the results have yet to be reviewed, he said.

“Years of unchecked misconduct by the River District, and some members of the trail crew, the termination of two employees that had reported sexual harassment, have had a severe impact on employee morale, productivity and perceived workplace safety,” Healy said. “Witnesses and victims remain fearful. I have heard the term ‘I was afraid to report harassment because I feared retaliation’ countless times in my seven years at the Grand Canyon. Reporting is also discouraged. I was told the deputy superintendent viewed me as a whiner, and my own supervisor was pressured to lower my performance rating due to ‘Brian’s problems with the River District and trail crew.'”

Martin said to address this culture and behavior, the first step is an awareness that the issues exist and “how those behaviors actually ascend to these types of situations.”

Echoing Reynolds, she said there needs to be an open and transparent environment, especially with leadership.

“Until we get there we’re going to continue to have these misunderstandings between management and employees as to ‘he-said-she-said,” Martin said. “Until we get to that point that we can then provide this transparency and really expose it for what it is, we need to really talk about the behaviors and be able to communicate that.  Right now there’s so much fear in being able to communicate what that is.”

Referencing a task force assembled more than a decade ago, which recommended actions to address the same problems of sexual harassment and hostile work environments highlighted at Thursday’s hearing, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said his committee “will set a north star for culture change for the next generation of the national park service employees.”

“It’s a simple statement but very very important. Nobody should ever feel retaliation … to report misconduct that makes him or her feel afraid or uncomfortable,” Cummings said. “No employee in the federal civil service should ever feel afraid to come to work.”

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