The Pervasive Trend of Sexual Assault on National Park Employees

There’s a danger in the woods of our national parks and forests. But it’s not due to bears, or the elements, but rather a pervasive and unsettling trend of “male entitlement and sexual hostility,” according to an investigative feature article Out Here, No One Can Hear You Scream that was recently published in the Huffington Post.

The article tells the story of several female employees who faced unimaginable circumstances when harassed and/or assaulted in national parks and forests. The roots of sexism run deep in these industries due to a strong image of masculinity endowed by the first park rangers in rugged places like Yosemite. When the National Park Service was created in 1900, a small number of women were employed, but their male counterparts “worried that their job would be seen as effeminate” due to their presence. Women were required to wear “skirts modeled on stewardesses’ uniforms” as well as different badges than their male colleagues until 1978.

Fast forward to the ‘90’s and it wasn’t long before women started speaking out about the harassment they were enduring on the job. In 1995, Lesa Donnelly gathered claims for 50 women and filed a class-action suit against the Forest Service. Here’s a condensed version of what the aftermath looked like:

“The agency negotiated a settlement that allowed for continued court oversight of California’s Forest Service. But when the monitoring period ended in 2006, the old problems soon resurfaced, as Donnelly would describe in testimony to Congress two years later. One dispatcher reported that she’d been sexually assaulted and stalked by a manager. He was made to resign, but after six months the Forest Service tried to work with him again. In 2008, a male supervisor at the same forest said that he hated a black female employee and wanted to shoot subordinates he hated. When the employee reported the comment, the district ranger told her to ignore him.”

Today, Donnelly continues to fight for her and others’ rights, lobbying in Congress on the behalf of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees to ask that women are protected while working for the Forest Service.

The article tells of another woman, Cheyenne Szydlo, who was harassed while in a very vulnerable position working in the Grand Canyon alone with a boatman she was reliant on for safety, food, shelter and transport. The boatman also had the only means of communication – the satellite phone. It turns out that sexual misconduct was a common and repeated offense within the boathouse that Szydlo relied on while conducting her research in the canyon.

The stories continue – all are among the same vein. Women in the parks department being sexually assaulted and/or harassed and then intimidated if they attempted to report it or take legal action.

In example, “Lesa Donnelly said that in her capacity as an advocate, she has been contacted by scores of women in the service in California who allege they’ve been punished for pursuing sexual harassment complaints.”

Perhaps the most upsetting incident was when two women who complained of sexual harassment were in turn accused of harassment by the men who victimized them. Sadly, the River District believed the reverse allegations and their contracts were not renewed.

In response, Donnelly gathered 12 women who had experienced misconduct and requested a formal investigation into the “pervasive culture of discrimination, retaliation, and sexually hostile work environment,” in the River District. The investigation did occur and here’s what happened:

“In a February response to the investigation, the Park Service’s Intermountain Region didn’t contest any of the details in the report, and admitted that, in many instances, appropriate action hadn’t been taken.”

While the investigation took place, the park made some changes including mandatory uniforms, the banning of alcohol on trips, an outside supervisor who would attend all trips, and disciplinary action against managers who “mishandled complaints.”

The takeaway here is that on a whole, we have a lot more work to do to prevent and protect employees from sexual misconduct, especially in outdoor fields, such as the Forest Service and National Parks. That’s exactly why TMI Action exists. We offer preventative, educational training for employees and supervisors, and more. See all of our services, and contact us today to discuss how we can best support your organization.

No one should have to suffer the negative impacts of an unsafe workplace. Let’s do better. Let’s empower each other to make healthy and informed decisions. Let’s end sexual misconduct.

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