Less than a week on the job, Chris Lehnertz is taking the helm at Grand Canyon National Park with a simple plan for the coming months.
“Listen, listen, listen,” she replied when I asked what her three top priorities were for the coming six months at the national park that drew unwanted attention for a long-running chapter of sexual harassment.
"I think coming into a park that’s as complex, has as many important resources and visitor issues as any in the Service, the most important thing to do is learn from your staff who are here," added Ms. Lehnertz, who was chosen by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis to leave her job as superintendent of Golden Gate National Recreation Area in California to right the workforce at Grand Canyon. "My impressions and the reputation of the park is we have highly competent staff working in a highly complex environment, which means I have a lot to learn.”
Earlier this summer, in the wake of the headline-grabbing chapter of harassment that ran for roughly 15 years through the park's River District, Director Jarvis instituted a zero tolerance policy for combatting sexual harassment across the National Park Service. A confidential hotline is being established for individuals to report sexual harassment and to seek counseling or advice; a system-wide survey of employees will be undertaken this fall to determine how extensive sexual harassment is; and “appropriate disciplinary action” is to be taken against perpetrators if allegations are confirmed.
Part of Superintendent Lehnertz's approach to getting to the root of the problem at the Grand Canyon has been to personally reach out to her workforce.
“The best way that we fulfill the National Park Service mission at any park, at any unit, is that we have a thriving workplace. And that is never work that ends. You know, creating a workplace where employees are respected and the atmosphere is inclusive, creating a workplace where the employees have the tools that they need to have to do their job safely, and even making sure that employees everywhere have clear pathways to tell management if something is wrong. We don’t ever assume that things take are of themselves. All of those things have to be actively engaged to be able to have a thriving workplace," she said during a phone call.
“I shared my cellphone number with everybody in the park. They know that they can contact me directly if they have something that they need," the superintendent added. "And there’s a lot of work going on nationally and regionally, specific to sexual harassment prevention, and so we will be aligning with that work. And as I learn more from employees, we will do some things that are specific to the Grand Canyon National Park that may be above and beyond what the national and regional plans are."
During a visit to the park earlier this summer, and through conversations with her staff and email correspondence, Superintendent Lehnertz sensed that the park's workforce is quite "resilient."
“Here’s what I’ve learned so far about Grand Canyon employees: Through emails and the chance to come visit here in the latter part of the summer, this is a park that has really resilient employees. The folks here are so committed to this mission. Taking care of one another has been a theme that I’ve heard, things like, 'We have a ton of work to do, and we’re serious about it, but we also are concerned about burnout, and I see it in my colleagues,'" she explained. "Those kinds of things tell me that folks here aren’t going to sit back with anything. That they’re going to stay engaged, that they want to be the strongest park possible, and so you have to keep a spotlight on things like sexual harassment that are challenges until we’re the best park in the nation preventing sexual harassment.”
On other fronts, the superintendent wants to meet with Navajo Nation leaders as soon as possible to discuss the Escalade project that has resurfaced and to ensure lines of communication are open between the park and the Navajo and other tribes that have ties to the Grand Canyon.
“I actually have a chart of the next 180 days, and contacts I want to make, and the Navajo Nation is in the very top tier, as are all our tribes in terms of building those relationships," said Superintendent Lehnertz. “Our trust relationships with tribes is a preeminent responsilbity for us, so it’s a very high priority for me.”