Adam Tavender

The National Park Service has been under fire recently after a government report found a “long-term pattern of sexual harassment and hostile work environment" at the Grand Canyon National Park, one of the service's most popular destinations. In response, personnel changes have been made, a "zero tolerance" policy is being implemented, and a confidential hotline is being set up.

The issue remains far from resolved, though, with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell acknowledging in July that this is “just the tip of the iceberg."

"I’m sure that as we investigate this, we will find there is a bigger issue, a culture that allows these things to go on that needs to change," she said.

On Monday, National Park Service (NPS) Director Jon Jarvis reiterated these sentiments, saying that the new NPS hotline for reports of sexual harassment or misconduct will help employees speak up.


"I expect the numbers of reported incidents to increase," he told a gathering of the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. "Not that there are more cases, but I think that employees now are feeling more empowered to speak up and step up."

Jarvis, who will remain NPS director until the end of Obama's term, said he expects other government agencies to follow suit once they see "what’s happened to the Park Service.”

These overdue cultural changes to the Park Service stem from an investigation by the Interior Department's Office of Inspector General that was published in January. The report found a number of instances of inappropriate behavior at the Grand Canyon National Park (GCNP), including male employees taking photographs up a female co-worker's dress, groping of female workers, propositioning of female workers for sex, and of employees behaving in threatening ways. The investigation also found that administrators at NPS were aware of these issues, but failed to take action for years.


In addition to 13 original complaints filed in 2014, the investigation identified 22 other people at GCNP who said that "they had experienced and/or witnessed harassment and other forms of misconduct."

At the end of July, bipartisan members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform sent Jarvis a letter demanding documents relating to the findings of the OIG report and instances of sexual harassment at the Grand Canyon and the Canaveral National Seashore in Florida, the other park where reports of harassment were made.

Stating the the Park Service has been aware of problems with sexual harassment since 2000, it accuses the service of allowing the issues to persist even when remedial recommendations were offered, and for not replacing key, high-level staff members who have failed to take appropriate actions.


"The task force found NPS was unable to retain women in law enforcement positions due to gender bias, sexual harassment and hostile work environments," the letter states regarding a 2000 report done by a Women In Law Enforcement Task Force.

The Colorado River running through the Grand Canyon's Horseshoe Bend.

This indiscretions were not limited to men. The OIG report found that on the last night of one of the boating trips down the Colorado River, the participants held a dance party during which "Contract Employee 6 produced a novelty drinking straw that she had brought on the trip with her. The straw, which was shaped like a penis and testicles, was placed in the drinks of some of the trip participants over the course of the evening. Later, some of the trip participants briefly engaged in a provocative form of popular dancing known as 'twerking.'"


After the boating trip, three participants filed a complaint alleging that those who passed around the penis straw and twerked were acting inappropriately.

The OIG investigation focused on the Grand Canyon's River District, which runs through the bottom of the canyon and is a popular boating, rafting, and ecological research area.

Zero Tolerance

In a recent memo to his staff, Jarvis said that the zero tolerance policy being implemented in response to this report will require the cooperation of all NPS managers.


"I want to clearly state that this means that when incidents of harassment are reported, I expect NPS managers to follow up on those allegations," he wrote. "Specifically, in situations involving alleged harassment, including sexual harassment, I expect NPS managers to initiate an investigation of the allegations and to act promptly to ensure that the harassment, if confirmed, does not continue."

In May, GCNP Superintendent Dave Uberuaga announced his retirement after being given the option to either transfer or step down in an effort to address the ongoing problem of sexual harassment.

In July, Christine S. Lehnertz, superintendent of Golden Gate National Recreation Area in northern California, was appointed the new GCNP superintendent, a post she will assume this month.


Lehnertz said that the park has "a responsibility to lead the National Park Service in eliminating the factors that have allowed behaviors of sexual harassment to persist."

“Staff and managers are already working hard to change the working environment there, to ensure that the Grand Canyon is a respectful, inclusive place to work and visit," she said.

The Park Service is instituting in-person sexual harassment training for managers and employees for the first time. It is also working to gauge more accurately how widespread the problem is across the system's dozens of national parks and hundreds of sites.


One immediate action GCNP managers took to change the working environment was to abolish the River District and reassign the six employees working in the unit. The 45-year-old district covered the 280 miles of the Colorado River in the park. These responsibility of overseeing this area now falls on other staff members. As High Country News reported, not everyone was clear on underlying motive of this move, or if it will have any noticeable positive impacts.

This year is the NPS' centennial celebration, and while there is much to celebrate—the parks are more popular than ever—on Monday, Jarvis also spoke about the host of the other challenges facing the NPS in the years to come. These include a $12 billion maintenance backlog, the issue of allowing sponsors and donors to promote themselves in the parks, figuring out how to best navigate a divided Congress for funding, dealing with overcrowding, and addressing the threat of Zika virus.