Feedback
News

Yellowstone Park Service Workers Disciplined Amid Reports of Misconduct

BILLINGS, Mont. — As many as 10 workers in Yellowstone National Park's maintenance division will be disciplined after an investigation found female employees being 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.

A view of the mountains surrounding the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park on August 3, 2016. Matthew Brown / AP file

Investigators have uncovered problems at many of the nation's premier parks — Yellowstone, Yosemite, Canaveral National Seashore, the Grand Canyon — as well as inappropriate behavior toward female employees by the Interior Department's former director of law enforcement.

The agency's Office Inspector General launched its investigation into Yellowstone last year when 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 results of the investigation were shared with park officials more than four months ago, on March 13. The inspector general's investigation also found that government-issued charge cards in the maintenance division had been misused.

Wenk said personnel actions stem from both the harassment problems and charge card misuse but declined to be more specific citing employee privacy.

Punishments will be proposed by Aug. 1 or soon afterward for the employees and could range from reprimands to suspensions or firing, Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk said. The workers can appeal before the penalties become final.

Related: Sexual Harassment Rampant at National Parks, Officials Say

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 personnel actions, 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 had 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.

Related: Yellowstone National Park Worker Falls to Her Death From Wyoming Cliff

Among other steps being taken at the park is 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.

Jonathan B. Jarvis,Dan Wenk
National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis, right, and the head of the National Park Foundation Dan Wenk walk at the World War II Memorial on the National Mall in Washington on March 23, 2015. Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP file

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 the parks.

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 amid similar allegations and the Interior Department's law enforcement director, Tim Lynn, retired in the 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.

Related: Trump Donates First Salary to National Parks Service

A representative of a group that advocates for federal employees said such problems remain entrenched — notwithstanding 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," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "Generally, the high-level managers and supervisors escape responsibility and (the agencies) are more than willing to take action against lower-level people."