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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Sexual Harassment Blights National Parks and Forests

Air Date: Week of

Back country workers report a culture of sexual harassment has pervaded some divisions of the Forest Service and the Park Service for years. (Photo: Emily Kassie, Huffington Post Highline)

Women in some divisions of the Forest Service and Park Service are now coming forward with disturbing stories of sexual harassment in the work place, ending public silence about years of abuse and official neglect. An investigation by the Inspector General of the Department of the Interior has now confirmed that there has been a long-term pattern of sexual harassment and a hostile work environment in Grand Canyon National Park. Host Steve Curwood speaks with journalist Kathryn Joyce, and Cheyenne Szydlo, a wildlife biologist who reported she was sexually harassed during her work in an isolated part of the Grand Canyon.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. The national parks are a classic all-American vacationing spot, and a place of refuge. But for some employees of the park service, that idyllic image has been shattered by sexual harassment they experienced while on the job. A Department of Interior investigation released in January found a “hostile work environment” in Grand Canyon National Park’s River District, and dozens of female employees of the California region of the Forest Service have also complained of sexual misconduct on the job. Kathryn Joyce recently investigated the issue for The Huffington Post Highline magazine and joins us now. Kathryn, welcome to Living on Earth.

JOYCE: Thank you so much for having me.

CURWOOD: Now, why are women in these kinds of outdoor jobs particularly vulnerable to inappropriate sexual contact or advances?

The National Park Service and the Forest Service were founded on a military model, still reflected in their current hierarchies. (Photo: Danny Lee, Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0)

JOYCE: The nature of these jobs is that they are isolated. These are backcountry jobs, so these are women who are working deep in the forest, at the bottom of the Canyon, out in very remote places. The other issue is historically these are fields that have long been quite resistant to fully including women, both the forest service and the park service were founded on a really kind of traditional idea of masculinity. There was a military model in both of them that's still reflected in the hierarchies today. As women were starting to come into these rules even 100 years ago there were moments of backlash and we've seen that continue throughout recent decades as well.

CURWOOD: Tell me the story of one of the women you spoke with about this.

The Forest Service is still dominated by men, especially in its firefighting divisions. (Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Flickr CC BY 2.0)

JOYCE: Well, one of the stories that moved me particularly was that of Denise Rice, a prevention fire officer on the El Dorado National Forest in central California. And at one point about five years ago she was being groomed for a promotion, something she been working on for many years, and then somebody in a supervisory role above her began to take an inappropriate interest in her. He started by making inappropriate comments and over the course of three years that she alleged would move on to unwanted physical assaults including groping and cornering her in bathrooms or small offices, behavior that almost appeared to be like stalking her around the forest, constantly keeping track of where she was and showing up in these very remote locations. And she for several years held off on making a report of the sexual harassment that was going on because she had been working for over a decade at that point in this extremely male-dominated industry. She had a keen sense that women who are trying to prove themselves the equals of their male colleagues did not file, they do not complain about these things, they wouldn't ever show weakness in front of the guys, and so she just was bearing this for three years until it finally got to the point where she had enough.

CURWOOD: Let me guess that, once she complained, that promotion went out the window.

Denice Rice told authorities that she was repeatedly sexually harassed by a supervisor during her work as a wildfire prevention officer with the California region of the Forest Service. (Photo: Emily Kassie, Huffington Post Highline)

JOYCE: Yeah that is that her perspective and that of both her supervisor and one of her colleagues, that because she filed she has since had her whole career ladder removed. There really is no more option for her to promote. So, there's both kind of the issue of harassment and assault and then also the retaliation issue that people who end up speaking up about this can find their careers completely stalled.

CURWOOD: In this California region of the Forest Service, how many complaints have there been?

JOYCE: I wasn't able to find an exact number of that, and the reason for that is that this is an issue that goes back several decades. In the late 1970s, there was the first of what have now been four class-action lawsuits regarding the California forest service. Women were really being held back from any sort of professional roles. Women who applied to the forest service were being channeled into clerical and administrative positions, so there was this first-class action lawsuit that called on the Forest Service to commit to making sure that 43 percent of all employees across all pay grades were women.

So there was this hiring spree that went on throughout the early 80s, but as a lot of men felt that they were being pushed out of roles or being passed over for roles in favor of a gender quota, there began to be a lot of resentment, and there are things like women reporting that they were out in the field and male colleagues rolled a burning log towards them, or that there was a woman who would be the only woman on her fire crew and all of her male colleagues were joking about raping her in her sleep. So in 1995 there was a second class-action lawsuit that was dealing with incidents of harassment and assault particularly as a form of backlash against the women who had come in under that first-class action lawsuit's consent decree. There have since been two more, one is currently under way now. So, all of these lawsuits have revolved around making sure that women can find a full opportunity for career in the Forest Service and three of the four have revolved around sexual harassment and assault, so there have been hundreds if not thousands of these cases.

Rice’s job involves preventing forest fires in California’s Eldorado National Forest. (Photo: Mark Doliner, Flickr CC BY 2.0)

CURWOOD: Kathyn, you also wrote about sexual harassment issues in the Grand Canyon river district. Of course, that's under the Department of Interior, the National Parks Service. Tell me why did the Department of Interior feel that there was a need to ask its Office of Inspector General to investigate claims of sexual harassment in that district?

JOYCE: Stretching back to the early 2000s women had been making sexual harassment claims and they felt that nothing was being done. And then in 2014 there were two women who had both previously filed reports who ended up being let go themselves on what many felt were trumped up allegations of misconduct, and so this came to be quite clear to me, at least, as a form of retaliation. And so when that happened 12 women and one man wrote a letter to Secretary Sally Jewel of the Department of the Interior requesting that she investigate what they cast as a culture of wild sexual harassment and then also retaliation against women who complained and then to their credit, the Department of the Interior moved on this pretty quickly. Within about a month they begin an investigation and they broadened out their investigation from the 13 people who originally complained to identify 22 other either witnesses or additional victims and the investigative report that was released in January of this year, it found that there was a pretty widespread pattern of sexual harassment and then also mismanagement of these complaints.

CURWOOD: That’s writer Kathryn Joyce. We’ll be back with her in a few moments. One of the women Kathryn interviewed is Cheyenne Szydlo, who worked in Grand Canyon National Park during 2006. She’s a wildlife biologist and says that during a river trip there she was harassed by a boatman employed by the park’s River District. Cheyenne told us what happened.

Cheyenne Szydlo, a wildlife biologist, says that she was sexually harassed on a river trip during the 2006 season when she worked for Grand Canyon National Park. (Photo: Emily Kassie, Huffington Post Highline)

SZYDLO: I had been hired to study the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher. It's an endangered songbird. And historically it had nested in Grand Canyon. It hadn't been seen for three years and I was determined to find it.

CURWOOD: So I take it things didn't go so well. Tell me what happened to you.

SZYDLO: Well he was the boatman, so his job was to take me down the river. From the very first day shortly after we got on the boat, he just started making really inappropriate comments about my clothing, about me, and at first I just kind of laughed uncomfortably, and then it was really uncomfortable and tense. At one point, I told him to stop. He got really frustrated that I wasn't responding to him and was starting to get angry as well, and so the punishment was he stopped taking me to my survey site.

CURWOOD: Really.

SZYDLO: Yeah, I was supposed to survey for the bird at dawn, and one morning he slept in until 10 o'clock. Now I was just waiting for him to take me to my site and there was no apology for anything and the final site I was supposed to survey he just said, "No, we're not going there."

CURWOOD: Cheyenne, with all this going on, you must of thought of getting out of there. How possible would this have been?

SZYDLO: Well, for the first half of the trip it wasn't. There's steep canyon walls, even if you did hike out in the desert in the middle of nowhere, but we stopped at Phantom Ranch, four days into the trip, and Phantom Ranch is really the only place that you could hike out. While the harassment had been going on before we got there, I really wanted to get to the lower half of the river because it hadn't been surveyed the entire season. It was the one opportunity that that part of the river was going to surveyed, but I also knew I was like if I'm going to file a complaint against this person, no one's going to take me seriously if I don't hike out at the first opportunity. And so eventually pride won. I was like, I'm not to let this guy make me fail at my job.

Szydlo’s objective on the river trip was to look for signs of the Southwestern willow flycatcher, an endangered bird that was believed to be extinct in the part of the Grand Canyon that she surveyed. She did not find evidence of the bird on that trip. (Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture via the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Flickr CC BY 2.0)

CURWOOD: So the trip is over. What do you say to the folks at the National Park Service about your experience?

SZYDLO: I didn't at first. I just knew it was going to be a battle. This boatman was a permanent employee and I was just a seasonal employee, and it was going to be his word against mine. There were no witnesses and it was the two of us, and I was so afraid that if I filed a complaint that I would be seen as someone who was difficult to work with or didn't get along with others, and then six months later with my boyfriend encouraging me, just saying "It would be the right thing to do, you need to report this guy," I did attempt to report it. I sent an email to an HR specialist.

CURWOOD: You say you attempted to report it. How did this specialist respond to you?

SZYDLO: Well I sent an e-mail not using any names, just saying that I experienced sexual harassment on the river trip, and that it occurred six months before, but I had been too intimidated to report it and that I also had some other fears, but I was ready and I wanted to know what the procedure was, and his response was just two or three sentences saying I had to have witnesses and specific dates and times. And it was definitely written in a tone to discourage me from pursuing it. And it worked. I dropped everything right there. I was like, they don't care, no one's going to listen and I am not willing to fight this fight.

CURWOOD: How do you feel that the Department of the Interior handled their investigation into that hostile work environment, the sexual harassment allegations in that district?

Rafting through the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River (Photo: Grand Canyon National Park, Flickr CC BY 2.0)

SZYDLO: I think they did a great job. I was so surprised reading that report. It was so informative. I had no idea that this person had sexually harassed other women. I thought that I had been the only one at that time. I suspected from his behavior that it was something he had probably done before, but I have no idea how many other victims there were. And I didn't know that upper management at Grand Canyon had known so much and have chosen not to reprimand or discipline this boatman, and as far as I know he has not been held accountable for his actions at all. There's been no discipline whatsoever.

CURWOOD: Cheyenne, in your view, what should the department do to ensure that in the future that scientists like you will be safe and confident in your ability to do your work there?

SZYDLO: Well, I think the first thing is that sexual harassment should not be tolerated. At Grand Canyon, I don't understand that they've shown that their interest is in protecting this boatman and not in protecting women from him. They need to show that they truly have a zero tolerance for sexual harassment.

CURWOOD: Cheyenne Szydlo was among the women interviewed during the Interior Department’s investigation. Journalist Kathryn Joyce, who wrote the story for the Huffington Post Highline magazine, says that that investigation into the alleged culture of sexual harassment was a real turning point for things at the Grand Canyon.

JOYCE: Roughly a month after the report was released, the regional National Park Authority, so not just the Grand Canyon but for the Intermountain Region, they released a fairly brief response to the report laying out around 18 specific steps that they wanted to take to address these. I think it's notable that the Park Service did not refute any of the allegations in the report but instead they talk about different personnel actions that would have to be taken both against the remaining boatman who was still employed by the park service who it was implied might face some sort of personnel action as well as considerations of discipline against managers who have not handled the complaints and the reports well in the past.

CURWOOD: How fair is it to say that no one's head has rolled on this yet in the National Park Service, or for that matter back at the US Department of Agriculture's Forestry Service on these sexual harassment cases?

Kathryn Joyce is an author and journalist based in New York City. (Photo: courtesy of Kathryn Joyce)

JOYCE: I think at the Park Service, there have been some people who have left, in a number of cases they resigned, but these were lower-level employees. These were not members of management and many of the men who were accused of sexual harassment, they were allowed to resign rather than being fired. In at least one case we know, somebody whose contract was not renewed because of some behavior issues was allowed to be rehired again at the Park Service. So, there have been patterns of discipline not being well matched to the severity of what happened, and then in terms of the managers to seemed to have looked the other way while a lot of this was going on, to my knowledge we have not yet seen any significant action at the Park Service, and at that the Forest Service in California it seems to be the same situation. The women there, particularly the women who are working on the class action lawsuit, feel that the same problems have been going on unabated for decades. They have requested that the USDA undertake an investigation similar to what the DOI has done this past year without success. They have had Congressional representatives ask for that on their behalf and to date it has not happened.

CURWOOD: Writer Kathryn Joyce. And whatever official actions the Park Service takes – or doesn’t – there’s a steep cost in scientific research wasted and trauma. Cheyenne Szydlo told me how her experiences on the river had affected her.

SZYDLO: My first couple of river trips I loved them. It was so fun to be with my coworkers and to be in an inflatable raft riding rapids, and to be in the canyon itself. It is beautiful. But I had totallyforgotten about these memories after my third and last trip when I was sexually harassed. And after my season there when people would ask me how I liked being on the river, I was, like, oh, I hated it. It's just it wasn't my thing. I always believed that, and it wasn't until I started going through all my journal entries and my e-mails, for Kathryn and investigators, that I found descriptions of my feelings for my first few trips and I was like, wow, that's right, I did love it. Since I remember now how much I enjoyed it before, I would love to do a river trip again.

CURWOOD: Cheyenne is a wildlife biologist. Thanks so much for taking the time with us today.

SZYDLO: Thank you so much for letting me tell my story.

Szydlo says that her horrific experience cast a shadow over her memories of river trips on the Colorado. More recently the happier memories of previous river trips have come flooding back. (Photo: Emily Kassie, Huffington Post Highline)

[MUSIC: New York Philharmonic/Leonard Bernstein, “Painted Desert” from Grand Canyon Suite, GROFE: Grand Canyon Suite, Ferde Grofe/violin cadenza John Corigliano, Sr., Columbia Records]

CURWOOD: Cheyenne is one of the women Kathryn Joyce features in her story on sexual harassment in the Huffington Post Highline Magazine. We contacted both the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service and the Department of the Interior’s National Park Service for their reactions to these complaints. A Regional Forest Service Press Officer, John C Heil the 3rd emailed in part…

“The Forest Service has a policy of zero tolerance for sexual harassment in the workforce. We cannot respond to specific allegations because of privacy considerations and because some matters are involved in pending litigation.”

In a six-page response, the National Park Service’s Regional Director Sue Masica described the alleged behavior as “unacceptable”, and detailed the actions they are taking to remedy the problems and concluded:

“While dismayed at the work environment described in the report, I am committed to working to change the situation and keep similar situations from happening again. The employees of Grand Canyon National Park deserve nothing less than that.” Their statements are posted at our website, LOE.org.



Read Kathryn Joyce’s article in Huffington Post Highline

The Inspector General’s Investigative Report of Misconduct at the Grand Canyon River District

U.S. Department of Agriculture Anti-Harassment Policy

U.S. Department of the Interior Sexual Harassment Policy

More about writer Kathryn Joyce


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