Workers cite harassment, retaliation in ‘toxic’ national parks

Michael Reynolds, Kelly Martin and Brian Healy, from left, told a House panel about harassment of and retaliation against workers at National Park Service sites. (Photo by Adam DeRose/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – National Park Service employees continue to suffer from a “toxic” work culture that has allowed for rampant sexual misconduct and a culture of retaliation, park workers told a House committee Thursday.

The hearing by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee followed an Interior Department report earlier this year describing “discrimination, retaliation and a sexually hostile work environment” at the Grand Canyon National Park River District.

Yosemite National Park worker Kelly Martin testified that she was working at the Grand Canyon where she was subject to sexual harassment, including one time in 1987 when she was “a victim of a peeping Tom.”

“I was able to positively identify a park ranger in uniform that was peering through my bathroom window,” said Martin, now chief of fire and aviation management at Yosemite. She reported two other instances of harassment in a decades-long career with the Park Service and U.S. Forest Service.

But she and Brian Healy, a manager at the Grand Canyon, said complaints of harassment were not taken seriously by management, and perpetrators remained on the job.

Deputy Park Service Director of Operations Michael Reynolds agreed that are problems with sexual harassment and retaliation across the park system.

But lawmakers were clearly frustrated with his answers when they asked what the agency has done to address a culture that excuses inappropriate behavior and retaliates against victims and whistle blowers. Reynolds could not say Thursday how many employees had lost their jobs because of sexual harassment.

“I am not aware that there are that many fired to be honest with you,” Reynolds said.

Committee members demanded a harsher response by management to allegations of misconduct.

“When you have a fact pattern of someone spying on another person while they are taking a shower, you don’t need a new policy change, and you don’t need a memo,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-South Carolina. “You need handcuffs and a trip to the sex-offenders registry.”

The committee learned a number of employees were reassigned or promoted after accusations of harassment, including a supervisor at Canaveral National Seashore in Florida who was the subject of a June inspector general’s report on the matter.

The January report on the Grand Canyon cited 13 workers who reported incidents of harassment over 15 years, many during park rafting trips. Martin and Healy testified that management’s inactivity in response to those claims was most damaging to morale at their workplaces.

In fact, they said, the victims and whistleblowers felt the most heat from the incidents, not those committing the acts. Healy said that even as he testified before the committee, he feared for his job and personal safety and for those who had been victims of the misconduct.

Reynolds admitted that the agency has a problem and was concerned by the work environment. He assured committee members that the Park Service is taking steps to address the problem, developing a new hotline, sending out reminders about appropriate conduct and developing new systemwide policies, among other efforts.

Lawmakers on the committee pressed for more than platitudes.

“Convince us that you get it, and that your folks get it,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, and the senior minority member on the committee.

“After these lights go out, they (Martin and Healy) got to go back,” Cummings said. “How do you assure them … or people that are there that they don’t have to go through this crap. This is crazy.”