BILLINGS– As many as 10 workers in Yellowstone National Park’s maintenance division will be disciplined after an investigation found female employees were subjected to sexual harassment and other problems.
The move comes as widespread reports of harassment, bullying and other misconduct have tarnished the image of the National Park Service and its parent agency, the U.S. Interior Department.
Investigators have uncovered problems at many of the nation’s premier parks – Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Canaveral National Seashore – as well as inappropriate behavior toward female employees by the Interior Department’s former director of law enforcement.
A report on sexual harassment at Florida’s De Soto National Memorial, which is run by the park service, was released this week by an employee advocacy group that got the document through a public records request.
At Yellowstone, the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General launched its investigation last year, after a park employee complained to a local magazine and members of Congress that a pervasive “men’s club” environment had encouraged the exploitation and abuse of female workers.
The inspector general’s investigation also found that government-issued charge cards in the maintenance division had been misused. Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk said the punishments stem from both harassment and charge-card misuse but declined to be more specific, citing employee privacy.
The review was shared with park officials on March 13. More than four months later, the personnel actions will be handed down and could range from letters of counseling or reprimand, to suspensions or firing, Wenk said. The workers can appeal before the penalties, to be proposed by Aug. 1 or soon afterward, become final.
A letter of counseling is not considered a disciplinary action, Wenk said.
Since the harassment allegations emerged last year, park supervisors have undergone mandatory sexual harassment training. Similar training is happening this summer for all seasonal and permanent employees.
In disclosing the upcoming discipline, Wenk echoed prior comments of senior officials within the park service and Interior: They’re trying to change an embedded culture that has allowed misconduct to proliferate.
“I’m concerned that people understand what acceptable behavior in the workplace is,” Wenk said. “We’re setting out very clear expectations for how people comport themselves.”
Investigators found that between 2010 and 2016, six women who previously worked in the maintenance division had faced derogatory comments or actions that made them feel uncomfortable. They said the division’s supervisor described the culture at Yellowstone as a “good old boy system” that was rampant in the 1990s but has improved over time.
The park is taking other steps, including instituting a new policy intended to curb the misuse of alcohol by employees after hours at remote work locations. And there will be a park-wide audit of employees’ use of charge cards, Wenk said.
There’s been no indication Wenk, who became superintendent in 2011, knew about the allegations at Yellowstone and ignored them. He has said he first became aware of them just before an article published last September in The Montana Pioneer.
The superintendents of Yosemite and the Grand Canyon retired in recent months following allegations of sexual harassment and hostile work environments.
At least 18 Yosemite employees came forward with allegations, and working conditions were said to be so bad that they were labeled “toxic.” At the Grand Canyon, male employees reportedly preyed on female colleagues, demanded sex and retaliated against women who refused.
The superintendent of Canaveral National Seashore in Florida was put on paid leave last year amid allegations that the park’s former chief ranger, Edwin Correa, sexually harassed three employees over five years.
Correa agreed to perform 50 hours of community service to resolve a misdemeanor charge after he was accused of kissing and touching another ranger against her will, the Dayton Beach News-Journal reported in June.
He was no longer employed as of May 12, the park service said. Canaveral Superintendent Myrna Palfrey returned to work May 28 after no wrongdoing on her part was found, the agency said.
The Interior Department’s law enforcement director, Tim Lynn, retired this spring after investigators disclosed in February that he had displayed a “pattern of unprofessional behavior” by touching and hugging female employees and making flirtatious remarks.
At De Soto National Memorial in Bradenton, Florida, a female employee reported that a male employee inappropriately touched her and made unwanted comments numerous times, according to a Feb. 6 inspector general’s report obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
The employees’ names were redacted. The report said the case was referred to federal prosecutors, who declined to pursue charges.
The head of the employee advocacy group said the disclosure of the De Soto investigation underscored that such problems remain entrenched despite the planned actions at Yellowstone and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s pledge to show zero tolerance toward sexual harassment.
“The park service still doesn’t get it,” executive director Jeff Ruch said. “Generally, the high-level managers and supervisors escape responsibility and (the agencies) are more than willing to take action against lower-level people.”
Zinke spokeswoman Heather Swift said the actions at Yellowstone reflect that leaders of individual parks feel newly empowered to confront harassment.
“His (Zinke’s) leadership will create a culture where people are valued for their work and not discriminated against,” Swift said.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.