National Park Service whistleblowers testify to Congress about sexual harassment

(UPDATE at 5:20 p.m. MDT September 29, 2016)

At about 7 p.m. on September 28 Don Neubacher, the Superintendent at Yosemite National Park in California, sent an email message to all employees in the park announcing his retirement. He explained that in a discussion with the Regional Director “it was determined that new leadership was needed” in the park. He said he was offered a position in Denver serving as a “Senior Advisor to Michael Reynolds, Deputy Director for the National Park Service”, but that since his home was in California he opted to retire. He will be on leave until the retirement is effective on November 1, 2016.

During the September 22 Congressional hearing described below it was revealed that 20 employees in Yosemite described the park as a hostile work environment as a result of the behavior and conduct of the park Superintendent.

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(Originally published at 5:24 p.m. MDT, September 22, 2016)

Thursday’s hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform was at times captivating. During the 2 hours and 17 minute hearing two current National Park Service employees testified as “whistleblowers”, possibly putting their careers in jeopardy and risking retaliation as they described allegations of sexual harassment and a lack of accountability.

The statements and questions from the committee members exhibited very little partisanship. Many of them seemed genuinely shocked and deeply troubled at the numerous examples of sexual harassment that came to light during the session. They frequently thanked the two NPS employees for coming forward and vowed that the committee would be watching closely for any retribution against the whistleblowers.

Four National Park Service units were discussed in regards to sexual harassment incidents: Yellowstone National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Yosemite National Park, and Cape Canaveral National Seashore.

Kelly Martin, Yosemite National Park’s Chief of Fire and Aviation Management, has had a 32-year career with the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service. For the last 10 years she has served as the Chief of Fire and Aviation Management in the park. She described “..a hostile work environment in Yosemite where dozens of individuals have come forward with personal statements of demoralizing behavior to include acts of bullying, gender bias, and favoritism.”

Ms. Martin was asked to describe three of her experiences with sexual harassment that occurred before she worked at Yosemite.

I was a victim of a peeping tom at the Grand Canyon in 1987. It was a very difficult and painful experience for me. I reported it to two supervisors immediately that first day that I was able to positively identify a park ranger in uniform that was peering through my bathroom window. I had reported it to two supervisors. Visibly shaken, it was very, very difficult for me to do.

She said she was presented with options: do nothing, file a criminal complaint, file an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint, or agree to a meeting with the two supervisors and the Park Ranger. She chose the meeting. She said she didn’t want to be labeled a troublemaker. The Park Ranger continued his career and recently retired as a Deputy Superintendent at a park.

Representative Jason Chaffetx, Chair of the committee, added that the park ranger was arrested in 2000 for peeping at naked women at a YMCA. In 2001 he was investigated for suspicious behavior or voyeurism behavior near a building. He recently retired as a Deputy Park Superintendent.

In another incident at Grand Canyon National Park Ms. Martin said another employee took photos of her and put them above the visor in his vehicle and told others about the photo. In her office at the Grand Canyon he tried to kiss her, but she pushed him away. Later he applied for the job of Chief of Fire and Aviation at the Grand Canyon. She spoke to the Deputy Superintendent about this incident and that person was not selected for the job.

In a third situation that occurred at a meeting while working in fire management for the USFS, one of her supervisors ran his fingers through her hair. She talked to her immediate supervisor about it, but did not pursue it further, in order to preserve her career. When she reported it to upper management, she was told “It’s his word against yours”. This led her to believe, she said, “There was a culture of tolerance and acceptance of this kind of behavior in her work force… I honestly felt the preservation of my career and the status with my peers was more important than filing a complaint.”

Referring to an investigation of sexual harassment at Yosemite, Chairman Chaffetz said: “It is our understanding that of the 21 people the investigators interviewed, every single one of them, with one exception, described Yosemite as a hostile work environment as a result of the behavior and conduct of the park Superintendent.”

The person that did not agree with that assessment, Chairman Chaffetz said, was the Superintendent.

Yosemite National Park is in the NPS’s Pacific-West Region. Chaffetz said one of the three Deputy Regional Directors in that region is the wife Yosemite Superintendent Don Neubacher. He asked Ms. Martin about that, and as part of her response she said: “There were a number of us that feared that the Superintendent probably got our names. We don’t know how, maybe it was through the Regional Office. We don’t know. But there were people that felt they were not going to come forward and provide a statement … because the Superintendent had a list of names.”

As one of her regular duties, she serves as the Agency Administrator’s Representative during large fires in the park. But during the 257,000-acre Rim Fire in 2013, Superintendent Neubacher directed that one of her subordinates assume that role, even though he was also in the position of Incident Commander Trainee on the fire. She said it was humiliating.

Chairman Chaffetz mentioned a recent article in the Montana Pioneer that reported serious allegations of sexual harassment and financial mismanagement in Yellowstone. He said Superintendent Dan Wenk had ordered a team of outside investigators to look into the accusations, but he was overridden by the NPS Washington office that directed an internal review by the agency’s Inspector General.

On September 14, the Yellowstone Association reported that Yellowstone’s Deputy Superintendent Steven F. Iobst will retire September 30, 2016.

The organization wrote:

In June of this year he received the Department of the Interior Meritorious Service Award. NPS Director Jonathon B. Jarvis noted that Iobst, “Made significant and ongoing contributions to both facility and park management issues…and led efforts to improve the visitor experience while protecting the resources of the park.” Iobst was presented the award by Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk. Upon receiving the award Iobst commented, “Don’t ever let it be said that an old friend can’t still surprise you.”

It is somewhat unusual for a high-ranking federal employee to retire in the middle of the year. Due to the way their annuity is calculated, it is financially beneficial to schedule it for January. Jonathan Jarvis, the heavily criticized Director of the NPS, will retire in January of 2017.

The other NPS whistleblower employee at the hearing was Brian Healy, the Fisheries Program Manager at Grand Canyon National Park. After numerous allegations of NPS employees being victims of sexual harassment by NPS boat operators while working on the Colorado River, the park’s response was to eliminate the River District entirely, meaning they then had little or no capability to transport workers through the bottom of the canyon.

Mr. Healy explained that their solution was to contract for boat operators, but at least one of the accused harassers that left his NPS job ended up back in the Canyon working for the contractor. That left the NPS with even less control over the problematic behavior.

According to Mr. Healy, one of the men accused of sexual harassment at the park, a supervisory park ranger, was subsequently given a temporary promotion to a Chief Ranger position, in charge of all law enforcement in a park.

The third witness in the hearing was the Park Service’s Deputy Director for Operations, Michael Reynolds. He was peppered with many, many very direct, probing, and at times angry questions about the continuing culture of harassment in the agency and what the members saw as a lack of accountability for the problem at all levels.

Ranking member Elijah Cummings said, “No employee in the federal civil service should ever be afraid to come to work.” And as the hearing was drawing to a close, “Let me send a message to all of those who are thinking about retaliating [against the whistleblowers. This committee] will come after you with everything we’ve got. There is no way we will correct this culture if you have to be in fear and if they can do whatever they want and get away with it.”

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

10 thoughts on “National Park Service whistleblowers testify to Congress about sexual harassment”

  1. Bill–you really need to do some basic investigation before you insinuate that Steve Iobst is the Deputy Superintendent referred to in the House committee hearings. In the link you supplied to the press release from the Yellowstone Association, the synopsis of Iobst’s career makes it clear that he was not a park ranger in Grand Canyon in 1987 (or at any other time or park–he came up through the Maintenance Division, and he was working in Yellowstone in 1987).

    In your post, both Kelly Martin and Jason Chaffetx are quoted as referring to a Deputy Superintendent who recently retired (past tense); Iobst is retiring (future tense) at the end of this month.

    Do you have any additional information linking Iobst to the Grand Canyon incident other than the coincidence of his retirement date?

      1. OK–I’ll accept that you didn’t put that out there intentionally. The concern is that this relatively short blogpost briefly covers a very broad subject that spans multiple parks and forests and the people who worked in them. Readers without additional information might be led to an improper conclusion. This Comments thread is critical to making that clarification and preventing unsubstantiated rumors.

        1. After reading the article, I came away thinking that Iobst was a perpetrator until I read the comments. I then had to reread that portion of the article more. Carefully, and realized that Iobst portion was unrelated to the rest of the article?

  2. That’s so opposite what a nurturing park is about. Time to promote and hire women in these positions. Have a harassment oversight committee that responds quickly and fires and charges sexual harassers and abusive supervisors immediately!

  3. The NPS (Deputy) Superintendent and serial peeping tom retired from Indiana Dunes. His identity is common knowledge to many who worked at Grand Canyon and Shenandoah during the time he committed 3 of his sex crimes. NPS managers facilitated this individual’s transfers and promotions subsequent to these incidents. However, in terms of the bigger NPS picture and the HOC hearings, its fair to say Iobst did have management responsibility at Yellowstone during the time of the current allegations about Yellowstone (as recently described in the Montana Pioneer). Per NPS officials, a DOI-IG/Yellowstone investigation is pending as to these new allegations and the NPS failure to take action.

    1. Yes–it is fair to say that Iobst had management responsibility at Yellowstone during the time of the current allegations about Yellowstone, which are currently being investigated and have not been substantiated. Maybe his retirement is related to the allegations that management knew about the misconduct and failed to act, or maybe that’s just when he wanted to go. Without factual information, we don’t know and shouldn’t speculate or imply that there is something suspicious about Iobst’s retirement after 42 years of service–it’s not like he’s taking an “early retirement.”

      My original concern was that this issue was not well fleshed out in Bill’s post, and it was too easy to conflate an unnamed Deputy Superintendent (who was a known perpetrator) with Deputy Superintendent Steve Iobst, who may or may not be guilty of failing to act against perpetrators under his watch. I felt the post lacked a clear differentiation between the two situations and had too much potential to lead readers to an incorrect and unfair conclusion.

  4. Sadly much of what you wrote is true Bill. After almost thirty years with NPS I saw repeated example of what you describe.

  5. Yellowstone has a history of harassment, I had to leave the agency after working there. I had supervisors enter my private residence when I was working. I was continuously used as a scapegoat to under management. Most supervisors are aware but neptitizm runs deep and no action is ever taken

  6. More fall out from NPS investigation, reaching the top of the organization; http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-nps-resignation-20161003-snap-story.html

    Other lands management agencies have similar problems due to it being easier to move or promote problem individuals than deal with the paperwork. No accountability at all levels of management and in government.

    Sexual harassment might just be the tip of the iceberg; http://www.eenews.net/stories/1060038401

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