When we think about our national parks, we tend to focus on goodness, wholesomeness and beauty. We might think about the fact that the U.S. was the first nation in the world to reserve the best and most amazing spots as national parks that would be open to everyone. We might have memories of childhood road trips -- or of bringing our own kids to a national park.
What we probably don't associate with our national parks is "unwelcome and inappropriate comments and actions toward women."
Unfortunately, the Department of the Interior and our National Parks Service are currently under the gun for a series of sexual harassment, hostile work environment, discrimination and financial mismanagement scandals. According to the Courthouse News Service, a deputy inspector general of the Department of Interior recently testified before Congress that the problems are real, pervasive and fraught with anxiety for workers.
She described a "pattern and practice of sexual harassment at Grand Canyon National Park provided a glaring example of Park Service management failing to take proper action when employees reported wrongdoing." She also gave specific reports on Yosemite, Yellowstone and Glacier national parks -- and on the fear of retaliation many Parks employees have about reporting their experiences.
Yosemite official's management style perceived as inappropriate
Investigators were called to Yosemite after 12 separate, unrelated reports came in complaining of discrimination, a hostile work environment and other misconduct. A senior official was accused of basing job decisions on favoritism or bias, and also of belittling or harassing employees there.
The report was, if anything, a bit too kind to the official.
"While we found no evidence to support the allegation that the official based management decisions on bias or favoritism," it reads, "we determined that his management style may have contributed to what some Yosemite employees perceived as inappropriate behavior.
"Forty-two of the 71 employees we interviewed about the allegations spoke highly of the official as a manager, but many of the interviewees said that he sometimes communicated poorly; that he could be dismissive, abrupt, or overly critical; and that he would often publicly criticize and undermine employees after he lost confidence in them. "
Yellowstone maintenance supervisors set up 'men's club environment'
Investigators looked into events at Yellowstone between 2011 and 2015 involving the maintenance division staff and supervisors. There, the investigators' report reads, "We found credible evidence that male supervisors and staff in the maintenance division unit created a work environment that included unwelcome and inappropriate comments and actions toward women."
Moreover, this behavior was "tolerated and even fostered by a men's club environment -- one of insensitivity and arrogance toward other Yellowstone employees -- that was pervasive."
In another case at Yellowstone, the chief ranger allegedly violated park rules by opening agency housing to visitors. The agency responded by promoting him to superintendent. This was "not a proper deterrent," according to the report.
Glacier National Park worker pleads guilty to abusive sexual contact
A male Fish and Wildlife worker at Glacier National Park pled guilty in federal court to having abusive sexual contact with a colleague. The 67-year-old man spent six months behind bars and was ordered to pay $22,000 in restitution.
Are those all of the instances of wrongdoing at the Parks Service?
It seems unlikely. According to the deputy inspector general who testified before Congress, the Department of the Interior's Office of Inspector General felt it necessary to create a confidential whistleblower program, as many employees were afraid of coming forward lest they suffer retaliation.
"Unfortunately, not all leadership in Department of Interior fully supports their employees contacting the Office of Inspector General to report potential wrongdoing," she told Congress.
"There is a pervasive perception by many employees in some bureaus that contacting the OIG to report wrongdoing places them in jeopardy of retaliation. We often learn that management makes more effort to identify the source of a complaint than to explore whether the complaint has merit."
It sounds like some of the leadership in Department of Interior needs to change.