FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — A survey of National Park Service employees found widespread complaints of harassment and discrimination in the workplace, and top officials vowed to address the problems that have tarnished the agency's image.
Federal investigators have uncovered problems at many of the nation's premier parks, including Yosemite, Yellowstone, Canaveral National Seashore and Florida's De Soso National Memorial. A sexual harassment scandal at the Grand Canyon forced the retirement of the park superintendent in May 2016 and led to the abolishment of the river district.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told employees during a visit to the Grand Canyon on Friday that he would hold people accountable for behavior that has killed morale within the Park Service. He urged employees to report misconduct and keep going up the chain of command if their complaints go unanswered.
"A culture that tolerates harassment and discrimination is simply unacceptable to this administration, and we're going to take action," he said.
According to department, nearly two of five Park Service employees surveyed this year had experienced some sort of harassment or discrimination over a 12-month period. More than 10 percent of employees were sexually harassed. The survey also looked at discrimination based on age, race, ethnicity religion and disability. About 19 percent of employees reported gender harassment. Less than 1 percent reported sexual assault.
Kate Watters, one of 13 people who reported sexual harassment in the Grand Canyon's now former river district in 2014, said change will come only with persistence. The complaint outlined how male workers preyed on female colleagues, demanded sex and retaliated against women who refused. The group said its efforts to get the Grand Canyon's chain of command to respond went nowhere, so they appealed to then Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
Watters left the Grand Canyon in 2007 and said she doesn't understand the difficulty in enacting positive change. She said she has spoken to current Superintendent Chris Lehnertz and offered feedback on training to prevent sexual harassment.
"I don't like to work in an environment like that where a lot of people were running scared constantly and nobody would listen to people who just want to do their jobs," she said.
Lehnertz said the Park Service has learned the trauma is real and must be addressed to heal. "The trauma changed lives, it changed families, it changed careers," she said.
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Acting Park Service Director Mike Reynolds apologized Friday to employees who had been victims of misconduct, saying the agency will do more to support them. His and Zinke's remarks were broadcast to Park Service employees across the country.
Reynolds outlined a series of reforms, including standardizing and strengthening sexual harassment policies, hiring more people to investigate complaints, expanding training and empowering employees through resource groups. The Park Service also created an ombudsman office to hear employee complaints.
"The survey makes it clear that NPS has a significant problem with harassment," he said. "A culture that enables harassment and hostile workplace behavior that's infiltrated the organization needs to stop, and it needs to stop now," he said.
Park Service employee Brenda Karl, who was at Friday's meeting, said she appreciated the frank and honest conversation officials had with the employees.
"I will say employees of today also want results," she said "When management speaks to pillars they're looking for in leadership, employees want that, too."
The Park Service has grappled with sexual harassment since at least 1999, when then-Director Robert Stanton appointed a task force focused on problems faced by women in law enforcement. The task force surveyed female employees and found 52 percent of them had experienced sexual harassment while working for the Park Service.
About half of the Park Service permanent employees participated in the latest survey. Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed said they did not file a report or complaint over misconduct. Of those who did, about 46 percent thought it would go nowhere, and a third of them reported mistrust in the process.
A separate survey was conducted for seasonal Park Service workers.
A small group of people stood outside the Grand Canyon hotel where Interior officials had lunch Friday, protesting Zinke's recommendation to shrink Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah and drawing attention to the Trump administration's policies on energy development and climate change.