Allegations of sexual misconduct in the Forest Service go all the way to the top

An “independent investigator” is looking into complaints against Chief Tony Tooke

Tony Tooke
Tony Tooke. USFS

When the PBS program NewsHour announced that the second installment of their story on sexual harassment in the U.S. Forest Service would continue Friday night, we didn’t know it would implicate the Chief of the agency Tony Tooke.

Below is an excerpt from the NewsHour article, dated 6:35 p.m. EST March 2, 2018.

The U.S. Forest Service has confirmed that the United States Department of Agriculture, its parent agency, has “engaged an independent investigator” to look into complaints against Chief Tony Tooke.

In the course of reporting its investigation, the PBS NewsHour discovered allegations of sexual misconduct against Tooke, specifically relationships with his subordinates, before he became chief.

And, NewsHour’s 7-minute video:

The first installment of the story Thursday night reported on interviews with dozens of U.S. Forest Service female employees, many of them firefighters. The women gave numerous examples of gender discrimination, bullying, sexual harassment, and assault by crew members and supervisors. Three women said they were raped by fellow employees.

On August 21, 2017 Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced that he selected Tony Tooke to be the Chief of the Forest Service. At that time the Regional Director of the agency’s Southern Region, Mr. Tooke replaced Tom Tidwell who announced his retirement August 18. Secretary Perdue said about Mr. Tooke:

The Forest Service will be in good hands with the U.S. Forest Service’s own Tony Tooke…As we move into a new season, I look forward to hearing how each member of the USFS family gives Tony your full support…

In a December 1, 2017 message, devoted solely to sexual harassment in the agency, Chief Tooke wrote, in part:

The work to eliminate harassment remains paramount — beyond our progress in mandatory training, reporting, investigations, and taking disciplinary actions. The work ahead, among other steps, must also center on permanently changing our work culture by uplifting and empowering employees. Every employee possesses the right to a safe, respectful workplace where they feel valued, but it takes all of us to protect that right.

NewsHour reported that since September, 2016, the Forest Service has received 1,013 reports of harassment, and completed inquiries or investigations in 632 cases. Of those, the agency said it found misconduct in 150 cases. Since NewsHour published their first report Thursday, more than 45 women and men also came forward with their own stories about the agency after their request to contact them by email at

Chief Tooke is, of course, innocent until proven guilty of the sexual misconduct allegations.

Our opinion:

This is a disgusting, demoralizing, distasteful, detestable scandal facing the agency where I spent 20 years. Looking at the sheer numbers, and knowing that allegations of sexual misconduct go all the way to the top, it is hard to fathom how anyone who has been mistreated can be optimistic that the harassment will stop, or that the perpetrators will be brought to justice.

This HAS to be the Forest Service’s number one priority — clean up this wreckage that is festering within their workforce.

Would you recommend that your sister, daughter, girlfriend, or spouse apply for a job with the U.S. Forest Service?

Author: Bill Gabbert

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

13 thoughts on “Allegations of sexual misconduct in the Forest Service go all the way to the top”

  1. Hell no I wouldn’t. Many of the perpetrators are still working: they are Patrol Captains, District Rangers, Forest Supervisors. They sure set a heck of a standard.

    They need to be called out, by name.

  2. I can not fathom what these women went thru. Though I have never personally experienced sexual harassment, I can attest to being bullied and harassed by a former supervisor within the DOI. It did not matter how many times I reported it, the behavior was left unchecked. Its not until one reaches a breaking point and decides the following:
    a: Should I quit?
    b:Hit the nuclear option with HR and blackball myself.
    Luckily now I work in an environment where I actually feel valued for my experience and not belittled. On the flip side, I still experience negative side effects from those interactions. It nearly destroyed me.
    This needs to end. Our line of work has enough stress. Retaliation, bullying, harassment, have no place. Get rid of them and make examples of them. Release their names.

  3. Dear Friends,
    Sexual harassment is not just tolerated in the US Forest Service. In Dentistry we suffered a known predator as a professor in the anatomy department at Oregon Health Sciences Center for 30( ? )years. We suffered from harassment from our classmates. We suffered from harassment from our colleagues when we went into practice.

  4. Although it may not technically be sexual harassment, my wife , a USFS employee, did as she had been taught, and reported her supervisor when she witnessed him inappropriately touching a female subordinate. The forest supervisor’s response was he asked them both about it and they denied it happened. The forest supervisor said there was nothing he could do. The result was my wife taking a transfer to get away from her supervisor and me retiring earlier than I had planned.

  5. As we are learning (or ‘some of us’ already know) the problem is widespread, prevalent, rampant, endemic, pervasive, systemic and institutionalized, in governmental agencies, private sector profit and nonprofit corporate, educational, and other businesses.
    It has somewhat taken the #MeToo and #TimesUp ‘movements’ to get it onto the mainstream and mainstream media. It’s always nice if you have an ‘outlet’ and long-reaching voice like actors do. So with their help, others are and will be helped, as well.
    It’s all basically a form of bullying, which is FINALLY also getting some traction, but mostly only after some (many, too many) children attempted and committed suicide from “Cyber-Bullying” (which is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to young people bullying / being bullied in schools). So we can ‘thank’ the Internet in a way, as well. Especially with the alternative media that is and has been covering it when the MSM was not.
    It has been occurring literally FOR DECADES now, across the board.
    And also racism-based bullying, as well. (and gender-based; and others)
    We’ll see if anything is really going to be done about it all. The Good Ol’ White Boys’ system is still HEAVILY entrenched EVERYWHERE, and will fight back tooth and nail, but hopefully their time has finally come to an end and we will see some actual changes. I’m not going to hold my breath, but I am somewhat hopeful.

    1. Geez. Good ‘ol white boys? The fairest system of law on the planet is based on assigning the guilt to the exact perpetrator, not to a vague mass of people who had nothing to do with it. It’s not fair, it’s not justice and it undermines civil society to engage in slandering others, especially to frame it in racial and sexist terms. Everyone all agrees that if racism and sexism are wrong, they should not be engaged in for any reason. Period.

      1. If you do not think there is a “Good Ol’ White Boys” system extensively ENTRENCHED in modern society (employment or otherwise) across the board, then YOU are most likely part of the problem.

  6. I currently work in a research laboratory that is part of the Forest Service and I have worked for state and federal agencies for much of my life. I have always thought that one positive aspect of working for government agencies was that this kind of thing was not tolerated, at all. I was shocked when I saw the PBS special and learned what kinds of things have been, and apparently continue to be, allowed to go on. Perhaps if I were female I would have had a more accurate understanding of the reality of the situation.

    1. David, you very well might be in an area that has great leadership and no harrasment. I work in the USFS and know many men who are respectful and trustworthy.

      I did meet a retired FMO once, who I am really glad I never worked with. He was quick to make sexist comments and tastless jokes. He was known for working hard and building a great program, but I wont ever enter a social setting if I knew he was their again.

      Honestly, the heavey drinking culture after hours makes me more weary of some men. I can see how things get a little fuzzy if comments and actions happen outside of work.

    2. SERIOUSLY??? I don’t (necessarily) want to dump on you, but if you “did not see it”, and “did not know about it”, then you are most likely part of the problem.

      I’ve known (too) MANY people like you who make claims like that, and it is somewhat, it not ridiculously, mind-boggling. Perhaps you are somewhat clueless and non-observant, and also just bought into the LIP SERVICE LIES, because IT IS the “policy” that it is “not tolerated” (pretty much everywhere), but THAT IS A LIE. Just because you write something down in a manual, and even have meetings and trainings about it, is MEANINGLESS if (some) people do the exact opposite of the “policy” and ignore it, usually or at the very least too often without (real) accountability. Ask ANY woman in the USFS (or anywhere) and 99% of them will tell you literal HORROR STORIES that are unbelievable. (if you have any real decency in you, they will anger and infuriate you and perhaps bring a tear to your eye)

      It’s like the story the woman (I think it was comedian Sarah Silverman) tells about taking a guy-friend to some feminist-like talk, with a fairly large audience (well-over 100 people, mostly women), and the (I think well-known) female speaker asked the audience “How many of you have had a man show you their penis in public?”, and almost every woman in the audience raised their hand, including Sarah. Her guy-friend was dumbfounded, and asked in shock, “Seriously?” And her reply was, “Yeah. More than once.”

      People need to open their eyes if they are not open, and act with minimal common decency and professionalism (when in a work setting) and anything else they can muster, and put a stop to this plague of disgusting behavior by too many men and boys. (and some girls and women, too)

      1. Billy D,

        Although I share some of your sentiment that it is hard not to see the problems, there are some who are lucky enough or oblivious enough to not notice these things. Attacking people who are just becoming aware of this is not a good approach to changing attitudes.

        You yourself told the Sarah Silverman anecdote that proved that some people are not aware of the problems. Try informing and communication instead of attacking.

      2. From my experience the guys who go way overboard on pointing fingers are usually the worst perpetrators. Bill, your reaction to that post makes one wonder what kind of guilt issues you are dealing with.

  7. I did not even actively encourage my son (let alone any daughters I might have had) to work for the USFS. At entry level the main jobs available were in fire mgt and I did not want him exposed to the anti-women mindset that is prevalent there. As a woman I of course faced it in fire and other field-going work in the FS and it greatly heightened the stress level. Witnessing that in his mother more than anything may have dissuaded him from joining. I am sorry that he misses out on an otherwise rewarding career caretaking America’s forests. When I put aside the bad memories, I have many good ones. My love for the job kept me tenacious and resilient.

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