When she was growing up in the Midwest, Olivia and her family vacationed at national parks every year. They piled into the car and drove hundreds of miles to parks and monuments and historic sites great and small—from Badlands, South Dakota, to Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico, and from California's Sequoia to Acadia in Maine. Each time she discovered a new park, particularly the remote, low-key ones everyone else seemed to forget, Olivia would exclaim, "This is it! This is the park I'm going to work at."
In 2010, at 20 years old, she landed her dream job through the Student Conservation Association: an internship at Death Valley National Park in Southern California. A sharp-tongued, witty young woman with cascading brown hair, Olivia* packed up and drove 2,200 miles from home to one of the nation's driest and most desolate national parks. One evening, about three weeks in, she asked her 21-year-old housemate, who also worked for the National Park Service, for a ride to a coworker's house several miles up the desert road, where she was house sitting for the weekend. When they arrived, rather than just dropping her off, the young man invited himself in.
Uncomfortable being alone with him, she said she was sleepy and feigned a yawn. He didn't take the hint. He moved toward her, attempting to flirt, she thought, and suddenly started tickling her. She tried to wriggle free, pushing him several times, but he grabbed her and wouldn't let go. Then, to her horror, he shoved her to the floor and pinned her down.
Olivia yelled, kicked, screamed, but his knees pushed down harder and his tight grip held her wrists above her head. Tears in her eyes, Olivia pleaded with the man. "You're hurting me," she said.
Olivia tells me about the incident as we sit at the kitchen table in her roomy Death Valley apartment, a mile from her old dorm as the crow flies. It's a 120-degree evening in July, and three fans blow full-blast, scattering notes and magazines. Olivia, who just got off work, is still wearing her Park Service uniform. The year after the incident, she returned to Death Valley to work as a ranger. As the sunset turns the desert a hazy pink, Olivia takes a deep breath. Six years later, the memory of the assault still makes her shudder.
"I didn't know to call it sexual assault then," Olivia tells me. "It took me a long time to start dealing with it, even though I worked at the park. I'd close my eyes and see him there."
I've heard many such stories over the last 11 months. In January 2016, the Department of the Interior released a report revealing that female employees of the River District of the Grand Canyon had been sexually harassed for years, and that park and regional administrators had known and failed to stop it. Since then, women working in parks, monuments and historic sites across the country have come forward alleging on-the-job sexual harassment, assault and gender discrimination. Many of them, like Olivia, are worried about retaliation and have asked to remain anonymous.
This year, more than 60 current and former Park Service employees contacted High Country News, describing their experiences. I have interviewed many of them and others, in total at least 50 people—from park rangers and scientists to superintendents and a former Park Service director—ranging in age from 23 to 70. Their testimony reveals an agency that has failed to protect its workers from sexual misconduct. Several factors contribute to this: a murky internal process for reporting and investigating complaints; a longstanding culture of machismo that dates to the agency's foundation; and a history of retaliation against those who speak out.
Olivia's assailant sat on top of her for about 20 minutes. When he finally stood up, she moved to the couch. He followed, trying to kiss her and pull her on top of him. She was sure he would rape her, but eventually, after more struggle, he left. The moment the door banged shut, Olivia fell to the floor, sobbing. She walked to the bathroom and stared in the mirror, brushed her teeth harder than she ever had, as if to erase something. The next morning, Olivia took a long drive through the park's sand dunes and salt flats with a friend, who convinced her to tell park administrators what happened. She went to the park's chief ranger and described the incident in detail. He jotted down notes and told her that she had a choice: She could either press charges, or let the park handle it internally.
Unaware that there was a formal complaint process, Olivia said that the park could handle it, and left. Two days later, her supervisor, her alleged assailant's supervisor and the park's chief of interpretation—another high-level employee—asked her to recount the incident for the third time. Afterwards, the chief of interpretation told her they had talked to her alleged assailant. It was all just a "misunderstanding," he said, and he would not move forward with her case.
The park did agree to transfer the man to another dorm, but it took nearly a week for supervisors to act, and on the day he was supposed to leave, she found him in the dorm kitchen, eating cereal. She thought she would collapse. When he finally did move, it was to the dorm across the parking lot.
Days later, according to documents obtained through a Freedom of Information request, Olivia's supervisor emailed the chief of interpretation to tell him another intern had concerns about the same young man. He responded: "Thanks for ... trying to keep the rumors from really taking off. I'm glad to hear (Olivia) is getting back into a better frame of mind, but I hope (she) is not creating an uncomfortable environment for (him) if it is not warranted. Something to watch out for."
The chief of interpretation encouraged her to keep quiet about the incident. Feeling ashamed, she did. She finished her internship, graduated from college and started working in other parks. She returned to Death Valley as a seasonal employee the next year and has worked there ever since. But the experience taught her to mistrust the system.
"They really have no reporting mechanism," she says. "They say, 'Talk to your supervisor.' What if your supervisor fails you? That's it; you hit a brick wall, the first person you tell. It rests solely on those individuals as to whether or not they will further your cause."
The problem may be systemic, but it impacts real people—both women and men, people who love national parks and believe that they have a vocation to protect them. They are confronted with horrible choices: Report incidents and risk retaliation; keep silent and carry on; or leave the Park Service altogether. And while the agency has promised reform time and again, dozens of interviews, incident data and documents show that it has an incredible amount of work ahead.
The legal processes for handling workplace sexual harassment in federal agencies are complex and relatively new. Sex discrimination became a legally defensible charge in 1964, when it was incorporated into the Civil Rights Act. In the late 1970s, the term "sexual harassment" came into use to describe unwanted sexual advances in the workplace. In 1991, Congress amended the law to include the right to jury trials and to allow plaintiffs to sue for emotional and physical suffering. The number of claims jumped from 6,883 to more than 10,000 within a year.
The most common charge today is "hostile work environment," which refers to regular or severe unwanted sexual advances, or sexually charged language or conduct. The behavior in question can range from physical touching to repeatedly asking a coworker for a date. Harassment and discrimination laws are enforced by an independent federal agency, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, based in Washington, D.C. It's a presidentially appointed committee that will soon be under the Donald Trump administration.
- photos by Laura Camden, Stuart Seegar; photo illustration by Brooke Warren/High Country News
In the private sector, the EEOC process for sexual-harassment complaints is relatively simple, says Rick Rossein, an employment lawyer and professor who litigated landmark sexual harassment cases in the 1970s and 1980s. Once a charge is filed, the EEOC has 180 days to investigate, after which the complainant can sue in federal district court.
But in federal agencies, it's much more complicated, making system failures more likely. An employee who wants to file a complaint must first contact an EEOC counselor. This is typically a Park Service employee who volunteers, in addition to his or her primary job, to walk employees through the complaint process. The counselor talks to both the accuser and accused and tries to resolve the issue. If the complainant wants to move forward with an informal complaint, the parties go through more mediation. If the complainant is not satisfied with the outcome and decides to file a formal complaint, the Park Service conducts an investigation. If the Department of Interior director of the Office of Civil Rights decides that the investigation reveals discrimination, the agency can take disciplinary action against the accused, like demotion or firing—but it is not required. Afterward, the complainant is entitled to a hearing with the EEOC, adjudicated by an administrative law judge, or can sue the Interior Department in federal court.
Cases tend to break down at several points. The EEOC has a reporting deadline of 45 days after an incident, but victims of sexual harassment, assault or rape commonly wait months or years to report their experiences. The women who do come forward are just the tip of the iceberg, Rossein said. "Below the sea, the ice represents a large group of women that for whatever reason—usually because of retaliation, or fear for upending their careers, or these lengthy processes—a lot of people who have probably good claims aren't filing them."
Second, victims who do want to report incidents may not know how. Many lower-level employees, interns and contractors are not aware of agency procedure or sexual harassment law, and not all seasonal employees and interns receive sexual harassment training. Fifteen women who contacted HCN—a quarter of those who did—said they had not heard of the EEOC process or ever learned how to report sexual harassment.
Third, EEOC counselors sometimes lack adequate training, and they face tight deadlines to resolve complaints. There are only 47 counselors nationwide to assist the Park Service's 23,000 employees. And Park Service employees who conduct investigations can be inexperienced in dealing with harassment. Chai Feldblum, an EEOC Commissioner, notes that investigations can be hampered by interference, bias and haste, with investigators rushing through cases. "If we get reports saying this is a systemic problem, the EEOC has the authority to do an on-site visit and look at their overall process."