Opportunity for Cultural Change in NPS

Diversity issues could be addressed as NPS works through harassment, work environment

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by Glenn Nelson

Three days removed from her courageous, stomach-churning testimony before a Congressional oversight committee, Kelly Martin was more in her element when she met with a group of environmental journalists in Yosemite National Park recently. The park’s chief of fire and aviation management stood in front of a meadow that the concessionaire Delaware North neglected to trademark, so it still is called Ahwahnee, unlike the grand hotel it fronts. The meadow had been purposely razed, the object of what’s called a “prescribed burn,” and therefore was darkened and mostly barren, an appropriate symbol of not only the events with which Martin was associated but, really, of an entire centennial celebration gone awry for the National Park Service.

Martin met with us to talk about prescribed burns and their ecological benefits and not her testimony about the hostile work environment at the very park in which we stood. That testimony had launched her into an orbit of scrutiny she said she found “unsettling.” On cue, Jeff Olson, a Park Service communications officer dispatched from Washington, D.C., hopped atop a log and addressed the group, many of whom had been holed up in conference sessions and therefore were shrugging shoulders in confusion over Martin’s reference to Congressional testimony.

All questions about Martin’s testimony and any issues she may have raised, “go through me,” Olson insisted. It was an awkward, off-putting moment that I have found typical of an agency about which I have closely reported and written the past couple years. Still clenched by the paramilitary culture that is the root of many of its foibles, the leadership of the National Park Service, when challenged, instinctively circles its wagons and attempts to control or avoid engagement with the public.

Many organizations see the embraceable benefits of transparency, but the National Park Service is not one of them. It had the elements that day to building a bridge to understanding with the media: Martin already was on the Society of Environmental Journalists’ schedule, Yosemite Superintendent Don Neubacher had been invited to dinner with the group at the hotel formerly known as the Ahwahnee, and Olson was present to moderate. But Martin was placed off limits and Neubacher spent that evening penning an email of apology to his employees that he would follow up, two days later, with his resignation.

For those keeping count, that’s three National Park Service superintendents dragged down by scandals involving sexual harassment so far in 2016. Recent claims of sexual exploitation in the maintenance division at Yellowstone National Park might increase that toll. Previously, David Uberuaga of Grand Canyon National Park retired and Myrna Palfrey of Canaveral National Seashore was reassigned after their units were hit with complaints of sexual harassment and hostile work environment.

As painful as it is, at least the aggrieved are getting a public hearing – and some action – over sexual harassment and gender inequality in the beleaguered, 100-year-old agency. I write about and advocate for diversity and inclusion in the outdoors and often say my issue lacks its “Ferguson” – the tipping or flash point that rallies masses and ignites change. I’m thinking we are about as close as we’re going to get to our “moment,” piggybacking on the sometimes-trivial traction being gained by women, who, sharing the boat of the oppressed, we’ve held as natural allies.

Plus our barriers are products of the same callous, privileged, paternalistic culture of aging white males. It’s a culture that needs to be expunged from public-lands agencies, as well as the bulk of green organizations and outdoor retailers. In the case of the National Park Service, that means scrubbing out the top levels of leadership, forcing out the like-minded in the ranks, and replacing them all with people willing to be held accountable.

That would be a start. The Park Service, after all, is headed by a director, Jonathan B. Jarvis, who knowingly flouted ethical guidelines, over which he had purview at the time, by writing a book about national parks for a nonprofit organization that has a cooperating agreement with the agency. The sense of being above the law or societal standards, in other words, starts at the top.

I really wanted to see Jarvis succeed. He came up through the Pacific Northwest, where I live, at North Cascades and Mount Rainier National Parks, which I consider my outdoor home bases, and was the Pacific West Region director. People I respect say Jarvis has a sincere desire to improve diversity and inclusion in his agency. However, by all available metrics, not the least of which is a workforce that has increased in its whiteness during his tenure, he has failed. And now three of the park system’s most iconic units – Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Yosemite – are beset by harassment complaints, a truly unacceptable circumstance.

Jarvis is too much of a careerist, too much of a product of the culture that suffocates his agency, and too lacking in out-of-the-box counsel. The National Park Service is like an attic that needs to be cleared and anyone with too much sentimental attachment to the dusty, irrelevant past is not going to succeed. Maybe the necessary sea change could come with Hillary Clinton, who would win the presidency on the shoulders of women and people of color, for whom she already has inherent sympathy.

Alas, politics is only one path toward change, and an often-unreliable one at that. The courts hold promise for more dramatic action.

The U.S. Forest Service, after all, seems at least a little more enlightened after a bevy of harassment suits led to the installment of more women in upper leadership positions, not the least of which is Leslie Weldon, an African American woman who is the agency’s deputy chief. “You’d be stupid to allow harassment here,” says one source in the agency. “No matter where you are, you don’t go far up the chain of command to have to answer to a woman.” The Forest Service workforce also is more racially balanced, at least in California, where Latinos sued over hiring discrimination.

Those advocating for gender and racial equity in the National Park Service and other public-lands management agencies will be challenged to keep their quarries focused on the issue. During the rest of our tour through Yosemite and Sequoia Kings Canyon National Parks, environmental journalists were briefed on climate-change-related issues and driven through forests dotted with dead and dying trees. Yosemite, we saw, has become a construction zone, still choked with tourists, and a maze to maneuver. “This is embarrassing,” a Park Service scientist in our van kept repeating. We learned about the nearly $12 billion in deferred maintenance from The Pew Charitable Trusts. In Seattle to promote his book about Yellowstone, the writer David Quammen was asked what he would take on if he were managing the nation’s first national park. Quammen did not choose diversity or gender equity, or even climate change, but sky-rocketing visitation.

The National Park Service is under siege on so many fronts, it’s too easy to lose sight of race and gender equity as the critical issues they really are; through an overly white and male lens, those issues don’t often appear in the agency’s view shed. Women already are the majority in the U.S.; nonwhites will be in no time. Without the support and engagement of both groups, the agency is sunk and, since the Park Service is one of our last lines of defense against climate change, so may be we all.

In front of a scorched Ahwahnee Meadow the other day, Kelly Martin and her colleagues said smoke often is the biggest objection the public raises against prescribed burns. A lot of necessary, natural processes occur underneath that smoke, they countered. And the same is true of the workforce issues Martin helped bring to light last week, which have started to ignite an equally necessary cultural cleansing in the National Park Service.