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.