Editor's note: Some material in the following article might be offensive to some readers.
For roughly 15 years life deep in the Inner Gorge of Grand Canyon National Park at times reflected rowdy, sexually charged scenes from a frat party for some National Park Service employees, with male employees pawing and propositioning female workers, some of who at times exhibited their own risqué behavior. Now, after an investigation spawned by a letter of complaint to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, the Park Service is determined to change the culture within its River District once and for all.
The investigation by the Interior Department's Office of Inspector General generated a tawdry list of inappropriate behavior, from male employees taking photographs up under a female co-worker's dress and groping female workers to women dancing provocatively and bringing a drinking straw "shaped like a penis and testicles" to river parties. The incidents, the September 2014 letter to Secretary Jewell charged, "demonstrated evidence of 'discrimination, retaliation, and a sexually hostile work environment.'”
One Human Resources staffer from the national park told investigators that there was a "'laissez faire' attitude of 'what happens on the river, stays on the river.'” A female worker who complained about the behavior of some of her male colleagues said "that women on river trips were forced to 'walk the line' between 'not being hated and not being desired.' She said that she resigned from NPS when the stress of working with the River District employees became too much."
The OIG's report, published on the agency's website Tuesday, concluded that an internal investigation by Grand Canyon National Park staff was "insufficient and incomplete," that the park official responsible for possibly being too harsh in disciplining two female employees for their dancing and the straw incident felt pressured by Grand Canyon Superintendent Dave Uberuaga to take action against them, and that discipline handed out was inequitable among the male and female employees.
It also noted that Park Service managers, from Superintendent Uberuaga to Intermountain Regional Director Sue Masica, had been aware of the allegations prior to 2014 and yet relatively little was done to change the river culture.
An HR officer who had been with the Region since 1996 said that she was aware of incidents of sexual misconduct in the River District since 2004 and spoke of a “laissez faire” attitude of “what happens on the river, stays on the river.” She confirmed that GRCA management failed to notify HR of many of the incidents of sexual harassment. She said that after the 2013 EEO investigation was conducted, new policies and procedures were implemented, but no disciplinary action was taken regarding the alleged incidents of hostile work environment and failure of supervisors to properly respond to reports of sexual harassment detailed in the EEO report.
The employees involved in the investigation would go on river trips of varying lengths for work projects, such as removing invasive species, to assist Park Service contractors, or conduct scientific research.
According to the 13-page OIG report, Superintendent Uberuaga, when provided with the Equal Employment Opportunity report from a 2013 investigation, "did not provide the report to HR or GRCA managers, and did not request HR personnel’s opinions about potential disciplinary action against the employees named in the report. No one was disciplined for failing to properly respond to the allegations, he said, because the EEO report indicated that these failures were 'not actionable.'”
But that decision by the superintendent, and other "midlevel managers" who did not contact their managers or Human Resources staff about the sexual harassment allegations, possibly was in violation of DOI and National Park Service regulations, which require that the EEO report be "distributed to key GRCA managers and NPS human resource (HR) officials," the OIG report stated. "No disciplinary or administrative action was taken against employees who were identified in the report as having violated DOI and NPS regulations."
Now Park Service officials are promising a more determined approach to address the issues raised.
"We have 90 days to respond to the OIG report," James Doyle, chief of communications for the Intermountain Region office, wrote in an email Wednesday. "As part of that response we will be enacting the report's recommendations as well as other actions designed to ensure that incidents like what has been reported never occur there again. What occurred betrays the National Park Service mission and the people who work to fulfill that mission. We have empathy for the individuals impacted by the harassment and nothing short of a change in culture within the River District will be acceptable."
Mr. Doyle could not say, due to privacy laws, what disciplinary actions have been taken against those on park staff who failed to report the sexual harassment allegations or share the EEO report with HR.
“There’s definitely been some discipline," he said later Wednesday evening. “Because they’re personnel actions, I can't talk about what those were. But there have been some disciplinary actions taken, for sure.”
Management changes Grand Canyon officials have taken in an effort to change the river culture include banning alcohol on the river trips and giving trip leaders the authority to remove "any participant from the trip who was not adhering to policies or standards of conduct."
The letter to Secretary Jewell was from 13 current and former Grand Canyon employees, though the OIG staff found another 22 workers who "reported experiencing or witnessing sexual harassment and hostile work environments while working in the River District." The investigation painted a sordid portrait of life for some River District employees.
We interviewed 19 current and former NPS and commercial contractor employees who reported that River District employees had behaved inappropriately toward them during river trips. These individuals stated that the four current and former River District employees had touched them inappropriately, made inappropriate sexual comments, propositioned them for sex, or otherwise behaved inappropriately during river trips. For example:
• Employee 1 described an incident in which Boatman 2 took a photograph under her dress during a 2005 river trip.
• Employee 2 described being repeatedly propositioned for sex by Boatman 1 during river trips.
• A former seasonal employee (Employee 3) reported that Boatman 1 repeatedly propositioned her for sex, that Boatman 3 was rude, and that Supervisor 1 had yelled at her. She said that she resigned from GRCA in 2012, after 9 years as an NPS employee, because of “undue levels of stress” caused by this treatment.
• Another former employee, Employee 4, said that during a 2005 river trip, Boatman 3 behaved in a threatening manner toward her—yelling at her while holding an axe—while he was intoxicated.
• Employee 5 said that Boatman 1 inappropriately touched her back and buttocks during a 2013 river trip, and that Boatman 3 yelled at and belittled her during her employment at GRCA.
• Another former employee, Employee 6, recalled Boatman 3 asking her to give him a massage during a river trip. She said that his request made her uncomfortable and that she declined.
• A former NPS volunteer (Employee 7) reported that Boatman 3 inappropriately touched her thigh during a 2010 river trip.
Since 2003, the OIG reported stated, there have been a dozen disciplinary cases taken in connection with employee behavior in the River District: