Members of Congress and the Washington Post look into sexual harassment in the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies

Since at least 1972 there have been investigations, lawsuits, and consent decrees that were spawned from sexual misconduct and discrimination against women in the U.S. Forest Service. A significant portion of it originated within the fire management organization. In spite of the attention this issue draws at somewhat regular intervals it is difficult to detect a great deal of long term improvement.

But it is not confined to the USFS. In a September 22 hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, two 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.

One of them was Kelly Martin, Yosemite National Park’s Chief of Fire and Aviation Management, who has had a 32-year career with the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service. She described a hostile work environment in Yosemite and the sexual harassment she was exposed to while working for the USFS. Six days later the Superintendent at Yosemite announced his retirement.

Members of that House Committee and other Senators and Congresspersons, a total of 13, signed a letter on November 10 requesting that Phyllis K. Fong, the Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General, conduct an audit of the USFS to find out if progress has been made after allegations surfaced in 2014 of “sexual misconduct and retaliation in Region 5 [California] of the FS”. At that time the IG investigated and found that:

The Forest Service is making progress and is focused on improving the environment of its workplace.

Below is an excerpt from the November 10 letter:

In addition, given the recent findings of rampant sexual harassment in the Department of the Interior National Park Service, now is an appropriate time to consider whether the Forest Service’s improvements have succeeded in improving the workplace environment. If the new procedures implemented by the FS have been successful, they may serve as a model for other federal agencies. If the new procedures have not been successful, it is critical that they be modified as soon as possible.

In March of this year the Huffington Post published a stunning article outlining a culture of sexual harassment at Grand Canyon National Park, as well as other examples in the USFS. The author, Kathryn Joyce, described numerous disturbing examples of female employees, including a wildland firefighter, being aggressively degraded and humiliated with little if any repercussions for the assailant. In some cases the victims were fired.

And yesterday, November 20, Darryl Fears of the Washington Post wrote about similar difficulties female firefighters in the federal government and other organizations are faced with. The author quotes several women, including Katie Sauerbrey of the Nature Conservancy who embeds with the Forest Service and the National Park Service when needed:

I know a lot of women who have left fire because they did not feel supported or felt there was no room for them to grow. It’s sad for me to see women who have that desire who don’t continue because of the culture. It’s hard to describe the passion people have for this job. There’s no other job I’d rather be in.

In the article Mr. Fears writes about one bright spot or ray of hope — WTREX, or Women-in-Fire Training Exchange, a program for female firefighters.

And there is at least one other encouraging sign. Ms. Martin, the Chief of Fire and Aviation Management at Yosemite who testified before the House Committee, told Wildfire Today on September 30, two days after the Park’s Superintendent announced his retirement:

The thing that is surprising is that post my testimony our Regional and National offices, our leadership in the Park Service, is taking the allegations of the hostile work environment complaints seriously. They have also dispatched the Department of the Interior’s Office of Inspector General to complete additional interviews. It sounds as if, I don’t know this for sure, that additional people are willing to come forward based upon my testimony, but they still fear retaliation.

The Washington Post article includes an excellent video in which several women firefighters describe their experiences. Below is a screen grab from the video.

Women-in-Fire Training Exchange
Participants at the Women-in-Fire Training Exchange. Screen grab from the Washington Post video. Click to enlarge.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills. Google+

1 thought on “Members of Congress and the Washington Post look into sexual harassment in the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies”

  1. Wonderful job pulling of these stories into one article. It brings light to all of it as a whole. Let the momentum continue.

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