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.

Continue reading “National Park Service whistleblowers testify to Congress about sexual harassment”

On International Women’s Day: firefighters in Australia

On International Women’s Day, March 8, take a look at this video from down under that highlights the role of women, especially firefighters, in Parks Victoria.

Female inmate injured while fighting fire near Malibu

The inmate’s condition was upgraded from critical to serious.

A female inmate was seriously injured Thursday morning while fighting a wildfire near Malibu in southern California. Reportedly she was struck by a rolling rock and was hoisted into a helicopter and transported to Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, where her condition was later upgraded from critical to serious.

Injured inmate hoist helicopter
An inmate firefighter was airlifted after being injured in Malibu on Feb. 25, 2016. (Credit: KTLA)

The 22-year-old inmate was a member of Fire Camp 13, an all-female facility.

The fire was reported around 3 a.m. in steep terrain about two miles north of the Pacific Coast Highway.

A total of 63 inmates divided into five work crews were battling the fire, according to Bill Sessa, a spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

From the LA Times:

Of the roughly 4,000 inmates housed in 44 conservation camps across the state, only a couple hundred are women.

The female inmate who was injured Thursday had come from the LA County jail system, and had been with the Malibu conservation camp since August, Sessa said.

The CDCR likes to say that only non-violent prisoners are allowed to work on inmate fire crews, but as was discovered last year, the agency’s definition of “violent” is different from the public’s perception.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tom.

War time lady loggers

I wonder how many people who today cut down trees with a chain saw could do what these women did?

The first Indigenous female firefighting crew in South Australia

Australia’s ABCNews produced a radio program about the first Indigenous female firefighting crew in South Australia. You can listen to it HERE; below is an excerpt from the transcript.

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“MARK COLVIN: A group of women in a remote Aboriginal community in South Australia’s APY Lands have formed the state’s first Indigenous female fire-fighting team.

For cultural reasons women in Mimili can’t join the Country Fire Service unit in the town.

But with the men often out of community on cultural business and other help so far away the women decided to train up so they could protect themselves and their land.

One of the new fire-fighters says she hopes other Indigenous women follow their lead.

Natalie Whiting reports.

NATALIE WHITING: About five hours from Uluru in the top corner of South Australia is Mimili.

A group of women there have been spending today putting out fires.

TANIA POMPEY: We’re going out just doing some patch-burning and I think we’re doing burning a car, that’s one of our old wrecks in our rubbish dump here, just keeping up our training skills that we learnt.

NATALIE WHITING: Tania Pompey is one Mimili’s new fire-fighters.

She and eight other women have undergone training with the Country Fire Service.

TANIA POMPEY: We’ve got a male CFS team and so I was just seeing how they do their training and I thought oh well, if the men go away or anything like that for a bit of trips and things, I just decided we can’t go after them, us women have to stick up for ourselves and just look after the family.

NATALIE WHITING: Absolutely, and I guess with cultural business, men’s business, there are times when most of the men aren’t in communities, is that the case?

TANIA POMPEY: Yes, and I saw how well the men team were working together, and I went to one of the training courses and I just though oh well, let’s do it.

NATALIE WHITING: Now, I understand that you guys are actually going to be the first Indigenous female fire-fighting team.

How did you feel when you heard that?

TANIA POMPEY: Totally, totally overwhelmed.

We didn’t, we just thought oh, just a bunch of ladies doing it and then one of my friends said “we haven’t heard anything like this from other people before”, and so we felt really privileged…”

CAL FIRE Director addresses Legislature about scandals at Ione Academy

CAL FIRE logo

Ken Pimlott, Director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, recently felt the need to deal publicly with the scandal at the agency’s Ione firefighting academy. One of the instructors was charged with the murder of the instructor’s mistress, and 16 either resigned, were fired, or were disciplined. All of the disciplined employees are being replaced at the academy.

Below is the text of a briefing he gave to the first Legislative budget hearing of the year.

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“I want to address the recent problems that we have had at our Academy in Ione. As we have briefed your staff, as a result of the allegations made during a murder inquiry involving one of our former employees, I requested an investigation by [California Highway Patrol] CHP into activities at the Academy. I requested their assistance not only because of the serious nature of the allegation, but because I did not know whether the outcome would be administrative or criminal, and so the review would be independent and impartial.

The Investigation:

  • A total of 123 Administrative Interrogations and 40 Investigative Interviews were held throughout the State.
  • The bulk of the interviews were a sampling of students who attended the Academy over the last two years.
  • The investigation also included the forensic analysis of State owned cellular phones, computers, and email accounts.
  • The investigation took from May until December 2014.
  • I have addressed these issues in the following ways:
    • 16 employees were identified for adverse action.
      • One resigned
      • One retired
      • 2 were fired
      • The remainder all received a demotion and some also received suspensions or additional reductions in pay.
  • The State’s law enforcement agency did not find sufficient evidence during this investigation to support any criminal misconduct charges. All the necessary elements of a crime needed for prosecution were not present.
  • As the Director of this Department, you, and the public, expect me to thoroughly investigate allegations of this nature. You also expect me to take action, and to put in place the necessary measures to try to prevent this from happening again.
  • As I take this action, it is my responsibility to ensure that the process as set forth by the State is followed. This is important not only to ensure fair due process to the employees involved, but also (even more critically) to protect the confidentiality of innocent witnesses who have come forward during this process. Unfortunately, with the recent media releases which included the names of witnesses, there is a fear by these witnesses of retaliation, not only by those involved, but by members of their own community.
  • The disciplinary process for the employees is ongoing, and we are working to ensure the integrity of the outcomes is maintained.

However, employee discipline is just the beginning of the steps being taken.

  • There is new management in place at the Academy in Ione. The individuals who have been chosen to fill these positions reflect my values and the values that you and our other stakeholders expect from a public safety agency.
  • None of the disciplined employees remain at the Academy, and they are currently being replaced.
  • The policies and procedures at the Academy are being updated and overhauled.
  • The Academy Student Handbook, including the expected code of conduct, has been updated, and every student is required to review and acknowledge it.
  • I have held a statewide managers meeting, as well as attended regional leadership meetings to address my expectations of our staff.

I and my staff are grateful to you for your time and willingness to meet with us as these events have unfolded. As we move forward, I am happy to provide additional briefings on the steps we have taken to address the issues at our Academy.

CAL FIRE is an organization of over 7,000 men and women who are committed to public safety and the natural resources of this State. We ask these men and women to protect the people and resources of the State, often at great personal cost to them and their families. The actions of the small number of individuals at the Academy should not be allowed to detract from the overwhelming number of dedicated public servants in this Department. As you expect from me, I took action to quickly and thoroughly address the conduct of these individuals to allow CAL FIRE to move forward into the challenges that 2015 will present.”