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‘America’s best idea’ is rotting from the top

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Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent Dave Uberuaga, pictured in October 2013 speaking at the blocked entrance of the Grand Canyon, has chosen retirement over a transfer after being told the park needed new leadership, months after federal investigators found a longstanding pattern of sexual harassment in the Grand Canyon’s now-former river district. (Matt York/2013 AP file photo)


The National Park Service has been around for 100 years. In that time, the agency, once called “America’s best idea,” has protected many wilderness areas. But its centennial celebration has been tainted by revelations of a long-standing culture of sexual harassment and ethical violations, especially at its top levels.

For 100 years, the Park Service has embraced an institutional culture with a very specific masculine identity — the rugged, macho, solitary individual. Until 1978, female Park Rangers couldn’t wear the same uniforms — or the same badges — as male Rangers. They had to wear skirts that looked like something you’d see on a flight attendant, not an outdoor professional.

This macho ideal spawned a culture accepting of sexual harassment. A recent report from the Interior Department’s Inspector General found a 15-year pattern of sexual harassment of female employees by NPS river guides in the Grand Canyon. Women who made formal complaints were subject to retaliation. An official report was given to the Grand Canyon superintendent outlining the problem, but he did nothing and allowed the harassment to continue for several more years.

The harassment caused humiliation for the women and cost some their jobs and careers. But perhaps more importantly, it shook their perception of themselves as able to take on anything that man and nature threw at them. Ironically, working for the Park Service cost some of the women their love of the river and the outdoors.

At the Canaveral National Seashore in central Florida, another Inspector General’s report found the chief ranger sexually harassed women on his staff in three substantiated cases in less than two years. He is still on the job.

This is the fundamental problem with the Park Service — sexual harassment and other ethical violations are not viewed as serious problems by top managers. When reports of violations become public, the violators — especially if they’re higher ups — are allowed to either retire with full benefits or, like the Catholic Church’s pedophile priests, simply moved to a similar position at another park unit.

Just before becoming Superintendent at Mount Rainier, Dave Uberuaga made a questionable real estate deal — that he repeatedly failed to disclose — with the head of a company that operated concessions in the park. When the deal finally came to light, Uberuaga was removed from Mount Rainier … and named superintendent of the Grand Canyon. He’s the one who ignored the sexual harassment report. When the harassment scandal finally broke, he was removed from the Grand Canyon … and was offered a job with the Park Service in Washington, D.C. He decided to retire.

There are few serious consequences for violations. More than a dozen Park Service employees singled out in public reports for mismanagement and misconduct still work at the agency.

These cases of sexual harassment and other misconduct in the Park Service have taken place under Jon Jarvis’ leadership. Jarvis himself has come under fire for intentionally bypassing the agency’s ethics office to write an unsanctioned book with a company that has contracts with the agency, and then lying about it to the Secretary of the Interior. He was reprimanded, banned from overseeing ethics at the agency and required to attend monthly ethics training. While embarrassing, it was a weak slap on the wrist. Jarvis remains head of the Park Service.

Some have questioned if an organization with so many harassment and ethical problems can truly reform with Jarvis in charge.

“We view the Park Service as an agency that’s rotting from the head,” Jeff Ruch, from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a watchdog group that frequently clashes with the agency, has said. “When it is convenient, Jarvis is willing to set aside rules.”

Disgusted by the lack of consequences in the sexual harassment and ethics scandals, Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., has asked President Barack Obama to remove Jarvis immediately as head of the Park Service. “Ultimately, Director Jarvis must be held accountable for … the ethical failures and misconduct and the lack of discipline …”

The National Park Service protects the wilderness. But who will protect integrity — and women — from the Park Service? An online petition seeking Jarvis’ immediate removal can be found at www.tinyurl.com/FireJonJarvisPetition. For more information, visit “Fire Jon Jarvis” on Facebook.

Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.

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  • Glenn Carroll

    If so many women in so many fields can’t work along side men who are not neutered, and need to receive special protection — maybe they are just to fragile to be in such workplaces?

  • Nope

    I bet you wouldn’t have the balls to say something like that to a real man. Sadly, you obviously weren’t raised by one.

  • John

    Sally Stephens (the author) should disclose her own true motive in writing this article, which itself is ethically challenged. She’d like to use this issue to further her own radical pro-dogs-everywhere agenda at national parks and recreation areas, which would allow off leash dogs on practically every beach and trail, other visitor and resource impacts be damned. She’s just mad that the park service hasn’t gone along with letting dog groups take over an entire park unit with one narrow use. My bet is that if the park service director were to liberally accept Sally’s irresponsible recommendations regarding dog use, her article would be defending him instead. I’m afraid Sally could use some ethics training herself; at a minimum, she should come clean on her park service lobbying activities before pretending to be a high-minded centrist criticizing what everyone acknowledges is shameful behavior.

  • TedEd

    John, Are there any points in this piece that you disagree with or think are misrepresent? Essentially, you’re defending a hostile work environment fostered by the park service? You seem to be the one with an agenda.

  • John

    You might want to re-read it then. As I said, it’s shameful behavior and has no place in any work environment. Point is, I question Sally’s true motives in writing this piece — she’s long sought to sully park leadership in an effort to push along her narrow dog agenda. I prefer my opinion writers to acknowledge conflicts of interest instead of pretending to be objective; this is ethics 101. Her hidden agenda taints the article — she’s suddenly found a convenient midwife with this issue. Shame that we have to doubt her true intentions on such an important topic. I will give you this, she is very adept at calling the kettle black.

  • TedEd

    It’s an opinion column, like the writers in this space, and it follows the same theme of her preceding column that was also about sexual harassment (it’s archived, look it up). Do you have problems with her intention or transparency in that column as well? I do not understand your point except that you seem to have a bone to pick with the writer about her viewpoint on something unrelated to this column. If she has it in for the park service the columns makes a strong case for why. The behavior by the park service leaders has more implications than being just “shameful.” It’s been rightly career-ending for some and will likely be the same consequence, if not criminal, for the others who allowed it. The park service culture is in crisis, and nobody is coming to the defense of park service leaders.

  • John

    It’s quite simple. The author is the Executive Chair of SF Dogs, a group that frequently lobbies for unbalanced off leash dog use in national park and recreation areas, to the exclusion of other visitors. Her group evidently just sued the national park service (just do a google search for the article – Sally Stephens and FOIA and dogs). The petition that she cites in her article to remove the park service director was started by her colleague Andrea Buffa at Save Our Recreation, another pro-dog group that pretends to be about access for all recreational users, of which SF Dog is a member. They frequently lobby elected and appointed representatives on this issue. Alone this is wonderful and fine, and what makes America great. But you’d have to be incredibly naive to believe dog groups suddenly care so much about sexual harassment and hostile work environments that they’ve started a petition to remove a park service director. Had the author disclosed that her group is currently suing the park service, or somehow tied this issue to their lobbying activities, I wouldn’t have a problem. But they probably know better. Rather, this seems a case of opportunists perverting this very serious issue for their own unrelated gain, and it’s unseemly.