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14 Jul 2016

A Culture of Sexual Harassment: Congress Members, Activists Call for the Ousting of the Park Service Director

Written by  Lyndsey Gilpin
National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis has come under fire after a number of sexual-harassment incidents within the National Park Service. National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis has come under fire after a number of sexual-harassment incidents within the National Park Service.

On June 21, a new petition surfaced on the White House’s website. In large bold letters, it reads: “Fire National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis. We deserve a director who will uphold the agency's integrity.”

During its centennial year, the agency has fallen under increased scrutiny for not taking swifter action to address a culture of sexual harassment and employee misconduct. The petition was started by a group of recreation and environmental activists in the San Francisco Bay Area and launched a week after members of Congress on the House Committee on Oversight and Congressional Reform grilled Jarvis for failing to take enough steps to stop sexual harassment and hostile working conditions that female employees faced in the Grand Canyon, Florida’s Canaveral National Seashore and other parks.

Last month, the Department of Interior’s Office of Inspector General released a report documenting a pattern of harassment at Canaveral, such as unwanted sexual advances and inappropriate comments by a supervisor. As the Park Service’s second sexual harassment investigation in six months, it prompted the House Oversight and Congressional Reform Committee hearing on June 14. The committee condemned Jarvis for not firing perpetrators and for not following through with disciplinary actions the agency outlined in response to the year’s first investigation of sexual harassment, which was released in January and focused on the Grand Canyon.

“Discipline and punishment is one thing; hand-slapping is another,” Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., said during the hearing. “I would hardly call what’s taking place discipline.”

Jarvis said he had formed a committee of high-level executives to handle the issue. He dismissed the idea that the agency wasn’t taking women’s reports seriously. He also said that firing a federal worker is nearly impossible, which is part of the problem.

“I don’t believe it’s fear; I believe (victims) don’t think action will be taken,” Jarvis said in the hearing. “I appreciate the reports from the Office of Inspector General, and (with) the actions we are going to take and are taking, we are going to see more reporting.”

After the January Grand Canyon report, the Park Service vowed to run a survey to determine how widespread the sexual-harassment problem is. According to Jeff Olson, the agency’s public affairs officer, they are in the process of finding companies to run the survey, and it should be out to employees by the end of September.

Matt Elliott, assistant inspector general for investigations for the Office of Inspector General, says that after these two high-profile investigations, the office will continue to keep a close eye on these issue in all of its agencies, and will be more mindful of looking out for patterns.

Responsibility for disciplinary actions following the Grand Canyon investigation falls to the intermountain regional director Sue Masica, who reports, like all other regional directors, to Deputy Director Peggy O’Dell. But O’Dell,who was also on a task force in 1999 to improve conditions for women in law enforcement, recently announced she will retire at the end of July after 37 years in the agency, Olson confirmed. (O’Dell could not be reached for comment.)

After the hearing, Hice and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, called for Jarvis’ ousting.

“My role in the committee is to alleviate some of the frustrations Americans experience by getting to the root of the problem and removing waste, fraud and abuse inside federal agencies,” Hice said in an email. “Oftentimes, it starts with the head of the agency.”

As of July 12, the petition had less than 900 signatures. That means it won’t likely come near the 100,000 needed for President Barack Obama to respond—but that’s not the point, says the petition’s creator, David Emanuel, of Save Our Recreation, a Bay Area advocacy group. “It’s a signal to Congress that there is a grassroots effort. People are aware and angry.”

The uproar regarding Jarvis is the second time this year Congress has stepped in on the issue of sexual harassment in the Park Service this year. In April, Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., and others called for reform in the agency, though not focusing on Jarvis. “What I want to see is institutional and cultural change within the National Park Service,” Gallego said recently. “If we stop seeing forward momentum, we’d have to revisit this.” He also added that he is drafting an amendment to the Department of Interior appropriations bill to direct the secretary not to rehire employees who were disciplined for harassment.

As the Obama administration nears the end of its term, many former and current park employees have voiced concern that the efforts to change the culture of gender bias and sexual harassment in the agency will fade away, as they did in the early 2000s during the transition to the Bush administration. But Gallego said that’s not going to happen.

“I’m 36, and I’m going to be in Congress for 20 years, and Grand Canyon is in my state,” he said. “So the issue is not going to be dropped.”

In the last six months, High Country News has received more than 40 letters from women and men working in federal parks, forests and lands, explaining personal experiences of sexual harassment, gender bias, assault and retaliation in the workplace.If you are a federal public land employee and would like to report your own experience with sexual harassment, please fill out High Country News’ confidential tip form.

Elizabeth Shogren contributed to this article, which originally appeared in High Country News.

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