Park Rangers Are In Danger
Let's not beat around the bush.
The National Park Service has a severe sexual harassment problem.
Roughly one out of every ten respondents to a survey conducted more than five years ago reported being the victim of at least one sexual transgression while working for the National Park Service (NPS). Such a statistic would be unacceptable at an organization with only a handful of people on the payroll. At an agency with tens of thousands of employees (and roughly 300,000 volunteers) spread out across 424 locations, it is outright scandalous.
Bear in mind that things are actually worse than they appear. The 10% figure only consists of acknowledged cases that took place less than 366 days before the survey was administered. In all likelihood, the cumulative percentage at this 100+-year-old institution is significantly higher.
Worst of all, senior NPS leadership has known about the magnitude of this problem for decades but has not meaningfully improved procedures to abate it. Nor have those in charge put much immediacy behind punishing the people responsible for these disgusting acts. Even when journalists and Congress, to their credit, tried to shame the NPS into fixing the weak protocols that have been to blame, not much changed. The persistently sordid pall cast over the National Park Service -- particularly for the female members of its workforce -- remains in 2023.
As demoralizing as the situation sounds, there is still hope. It comes in the form of a growing group of current and past employees who now dedicate their lives to snuffing out sexual harassment at the NPS... a group that I had the honor of speaking with last week.
Allow me to relay the sheer madness of what they are up against so that we, as a nation, can work together to assist them in finally curtailing this recurring park ranger nightmare once and for all.
Yellowstone. Grand Canyon. Yosemite. Three of America's most revered national treasures. Sadly, these same sites have been the settings of some of the most nauseating internal affairs crimes since the NPS was formed in 1916. So horrible, in fact, that ending the abuse that has occurred inside park boundaries has become one of the few 21st Century issues with bipartisan consensus.
Former Republican Chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (UT), referred to the culture at America's first national park as "so depraved that it's disturbing even to discuss." Zooming out moments later at that same 2016 committee session, his Democrat counterpart, Rep. Elijah Cummings (MD), reminded those in attendance that a task force study linked to Congressional Oversight way back in the year 2000 found that NPS authority "appear(ed) to condone either by their action or inaction, sexual harassment and discrimination and that the system isn't trusted by NPS employees."
No piece of evidence better showcases how badly the entire agency has -- even at the very top -- mismanaged the topic of sexual harassment than this clip regarding Canaveral National Seashore. You should really watch it. For those that cannot, it shows a previous NPS Director sheepishly appearing to play fast and loose with terminology to disguise how that facility's Chief Ranger was somehow still involved with the location despite multiple accusations of sexual misconduct there.
The list goes on: Chattahoochee. Death Valley. DeSoto. Whiskeytown. It should be noted that the ones we know about are just a fraction of the total due to inherently justifiable privacy protections. There are undoubtedly countless more that have gone completely unreported due to fears of reprisal, choices not to relive the pain of traumatic experiences, or thoughts akin to "you could kill someone here and keep your job."
It's these kinds of stories, both known and unknown, that are driving dozens of NPS whistleblowers to fight for real change inside the Department of the Interior's most visible bureau. And while not every group member endured personal tribulations that involved sexual matters, they all recognize the importance of stamping out harassment on behalf of coworkers and future female rangers alike.
These are people who feel the posted NPS motto of "service, pride, and protection" rings hollow. Individuals like the de facto leader of this movement, former Horseshoe Bend Park Liaison Maschelle Zia, who saw everything from discrimination to reprisal in the time she served within the Glen Canyon NRA. Authorities like NPS law enforcement expert Paul Berkowitz, who has been trying to raise internal issue awareness for decades. Staff and ex-employees, like the brave assault victim I interviewed under condition of anonymity, who are hesitant to give their names.
According to Berkowitz, the group is bucking up against the "noble cause corruption" that is entrenched at the National Park Service. Per his definition of this concept, there is a hidden force of "misconduct perpetrated in the name of the agency and its mission" that is often coordinated but at other times is merely an unintentional byproduct of people's allegiance to the NPS. As Zia puts it, damning information has been "secreted away to protect the NPS image." Triangulating this sentiment, my anonymous source declared: "protections designed to protect women like me fail not by accident, but by design."
[I should note that all three of these conversations were independent of one another.]
Clearly, this level of agreement suggests they may have identified the root cause of the problem. But before we can proclaim that with certainty, we should probably confirm what they say is true.
If A Tree Falls In The Woods
From what we've seen, it would be hard to argue that the National Park Service has done much of anything to instill confidence in its response to cases of sexual harassment. Circling back to the Clinton-era task force report mentioned by Elijah Cummings, Acting Director Mike Reynolds testified that none of the thirty recommendations had been implemented by the final months of the Obama presidency. That bears repeating: not one in sixteen years.
While some of this is a result of large governmental administrations' propensity to enact reform at a glacial pace, it is still inexcusable. Agencies that keep having to explain why it takes years to initiate and/or review issues deserve your scorn. But it is the bureaucracies that make a habit of ignoring systems that are already on the books that really should receive no mercy. Maschelle Zia has first-hand experience with the frustration arising from codes not being followed. In Berkowitz's opinion, the NPS has "lots of policies in place, but they're not consistently applied... which is worse than no policy at all."
Without question, the National Park Service has not done a sufficient job supporting victims. Recognize, though, that there is a whole other side of the equation. It is incumbent upon us to ask if management has at least tightened routines to more quickly expel bad actors from the agency.
During the Reynolds exchange on Capitol Hill, it was stated that the GAO estimated the termination process takes between six months to a year. I suppose on some level an HR timeline of that length may make sense when canning someone for stock reasons like underperformance. But how in the world was there apparently no "break glass in case of emergency" trigger in cases where sexual offenses occurred?
[To illustrate, when DOI Secretary Ryan Zinke tried to expedite the dismissal of a handful of rotten NPS employees, he encountered "many of the solicitors (saying he) couldn't do it." Seriously?!]
Furthermore, how did any of that square with the "zero tolerance" atmosphere the Park Service supposedly embraces? That oft uttered phrase sure seems like an empty platitude. Adhering to a zero-tolerance sexual harassment concept is not rocket science. As Republican Trey Gowdy (SC), with nary an aerospace engineering degree to his name, exclaimed forcefully "you don't need a policy change and you don't need a new memo, you need handcuffs and a trip to the sex offender registry." For the record, his comment was in reference to a male NPS employee caught spying on numerous women, including a young female ranger who was showering. Absolutely revolting... moreso when you contemplate how that same man was repeatedly transferred and promoted, ultimately to the title of Assistant Superintendent, before authorities outside of the federal government nabbed him for allegedly peeping in Indiana, according to Berkowitz.
[During the course of my research, I heard rumors of one supervisor who assaulted his female subordinate at her home the day after her park ranger husband died in an accident. While I have a pretty good idea of the parties involved, I could not verify their accounts (or the supposed administrative law judge case that followed); thus, I am restricted from elaborating on it.]
Obviously, the system is broken. Could it be that the processes themselves need a total overhaul?
The short answer is yes. At the risk of boring you, take a peek at what is probably only a partial list of the various reporting procedures a park ranger has to navigate:
Standard HR & Employee Relations rigmarole
Employee Assistance Program services
Equal Employment Opportunity disquisitions
HPOCs (anti-harassment points of contact)
Mediations (via an Ombuds or a "Core Plus neutral")
Office of Professional Responsibility investigations
Office of Inspector General investigations
Office of the Solicitor investigations
Victims Assistance Program consultations
Without getting into the weeds, consider the hoops someone has to jump through to complete just one of these proceedings. Add in the stress associated with picking which avenues to pursue. Stack onto that the doubt that will inevitably arise from any option not taken. Mix it together with a heavy dose of "overwhelmed" stewards of these programs who end up being "more of a listening ear," in Zia's estimation. And don't forget that these inquiries usually proceed in parallel.
All of it can leave heads spinning on a good day; now ponder what it is like when lives have been turned upside down by the unwanted advances of a creep. Perhaps no one knows this better than my anonymous source. Without going into too much detail, she awoke one morning to find a male ranger on top of her in her own bed. Since then, she has participated in the vast majority of these NPS reporting operations, which she found to be a minefield that retraumatized her. To condense her anguish into a single idea, virtually every step of the process forced her to replay the event against a backdrop of how it would affect her potential future within an agency that "defend(s) the male park ranger image and force(s) out female victims who speak up about bad behaviors and abuse."
I haven't even mentioned the potential for retaliation or subterfuge that can go along with notifying the NPS of harassment. Those 2016 Oversight hearings included testimony related to allies being threatened with lowered performance ratings as well as victims of sexual harassment being terminated. Paul Berkowitz told me how he drew backlash for reporting a certain individual involved in this Colorado River story years before the perpetrator was finally exposed. [That same article attributes a quote to a supervisor that is too crude to print here. Click on the link and search for the word "whipped" to get a real feel of what female employees face.] As he put it, "policy is selectively applied as a weapon depending on who you are and who you know."
Berkowitz posits NPS dysfunction is the product of a decentralized structure suffering from a lack of oversight with "no mechanism of accountability." That would explain how both women I spoke with gave detailed accounts of things like cronyism, nepotism, leaked information, and suspected collusion. They, like many other NPS victims, also had to interact with their offenders on multiple occasions, even months or years after reporting their issues.
Between middlemen not wanting to damage the noble cause, biased parties receiving information they almost certainly should not during supposedly neutral investigations, and the inability to separate the wounded from the monsters who victimized them, it's no wonder so many people avoid the process altogether.
Answering The Call
Now for some good news. Current NPS Director Chuck Sams has made overtures that signal his commitment to put teeth into his agency's anti-harassment policy. The most prominent example of this push for responsiveness comes in the form of the RISE Vision Action Plan. It's an "organizing framework" that covers a lot of ground. After reviewing it, I can honestly say I was impressed with the extreme detail of its tasks and objectives. Even better, a decent number of them have already been implemented or are underway.
Still, I have to balance that praise with the sinking feeling that RISE may end up being another consulting buzzword exercise that has little effect. It wasn't that long ago that the bureau tried to hit the partial reset button in a similar manner. In April of 2018, Order #16E was approved "to ensure that the NPS takes immediate and appropriate corrective action." That update to the agency's anti-harassment protocols even built in language to give it greater latitude than Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Yet, like a lot of these endeavors, it mainly looks good on paper. In actuality, huge gaffes still slip through the cracks.
Will RISE suffer the same disconcerting fate? Not if we help.
First, let's give Sams his due. He has prioritized the issue. At the end of March, he met with Maschelle Zia's group in person. He seems to genuinely care. That matters.
If I could give him one piece of advice, it would be to streamline the sexual harassment reporting and investigation system. I would dedicate a separate silo devoted exclusively to fast-tracking cases of this nature. It would eliminate a lot of the stress and confusion that currently exists by acting as a clearinghouse for all of the other remedies (OIG, OPR, etc). By structuring it this way, the time-sensitive new silo would also avoid the information overload that the rest of the RISE objectives (hiring procedures, compensation equity, etc) might generate.
If the people I interviewed could isolate their suggestions into an actionable paragraph, it would look like this. Maschelle Zia would "inject integrity" into the agency by hiring more outsiders who haven't been "raised in the NPS." She would also scale up victims' assistance programs and insist that claims are processed in neutral regions, similar to change of venue requests in the legal world. My anonymous source would demand the NPS take a hard look at the IMARS incident management system to rectify the hundreds of sexual assaults that very possibly were not reported to the Investigative Services Branch**. For Paul Berkowitz, it all comes down to accountability; without it, the repercussion-free culture of insulation and demoralization will endure.
If you could propose solutions, what would they be and will you formally submit them today?
To heal the NPS, anything that breeds resentment and distrust needs to be cut out. Ideally, Sams will follow through on the best ideas presented here. And why wouldn't he? By doing so, he could go down in history as the hero who finally defeated the beast that has been haunting the storybook lands of the National Park Service for generations. That's a tale we'd all like to read.
Note: the post above may contain commentary reflecting the author's opinion.
** More specifically, her advice to anyone with the power to act on this is: "The NPS should create and enforce policies that require all reports of sexual assault be reported to ISB. Senior management is aware of hundreds of cases in the past ten years that were reported but never referred to ISB or investigated in any way. Also, all reports of sexual misconduct by NPS law enforcement officers and senior management officials should be referred to the FBI; not investigated internally by OPR or the OIG. Lastly, any employee found to have interfered with, colluded, or attempted to cover up an incident of sexual misconduct should be fired and face any potential civil and criminal penalties."