Politics & Government

Interior Department now probing Yosemite harassment complaints

Visitors take photos of Yosemite Valley from the Tunnel View point on the day staff and visitors celebrated the National Park Service's 100-year anniversary, Aug. 25, 2016.
Visitors take photos of Yosemite Valley from the Tunnel View point on the day staff and visitors celebrated the National Park Service's 100-year anniversary, Aug. 25, 2016. ezamora@fresnobee.com

Federal investigators are heading back to Yosemite National Park in coming days, as their probe of park management picks up speed.

Prompted by a National Park Service request, the investigation that formally began Aug. 29 is digging into myriad Yosemite employee complaints about the work environment fostered under Superintendent Don Neubacher.

“We hope that workers won’t be afraid and will approach our investigators,” Nancy DiPaolo, external affairs director for the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General, said Wednesday. She did not say when precisely the investigators would arrive.

The team returning to Yosemite will be making its second trip to the park, whose management was publicly blasted at a congressional hearing last Thursday. More investigative trips might come, as DiPaolo noted that similar national park inquiries have taken up to a year.

“This is something we’d like to be able to finish sooner rather than later,” DiPaolo said, while adding that peeling away complaints can be “like an onion.”

In a grim twist for the park service, which has been seeking to celebrate its crown jewels in this centennial year, the Yosemite investigation coincides with a separate investigation into alleged sexual improprieties at Yellowstone National Park. The investigators began their work at Yellowstone this week, DiPaolo said.

When finally done, these kinds of reports can end careers.

An Office of Inspector General investigation into sexual harassment and hostile work environment allegations at Grand Canyon National Park, initiated by a complaint in September 2014 and published last January, led to the departure of the park superintendent, who retired rather than accept a transfer

The superintendent at Canaveral National Seashore in Florida was likewise reassigned earlier this month after the release in June of a report detailing alleged sexual misconduct by the park’s chief ranger. The ranger also has been reassigned.

At Yosemite, the probing began in early August as a preliminary step toward what could become a formal Equal Employment Opportunity complaint from workers alleging a hostile work environment.

“The park service, I have to give them kudos, did an internal inquiry,” DiPaolo said.

In time, according to Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, the chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, at least 18 Yosemite employees complained about work conditions. One, fire and aviation branch chief Kelly Martin, made her concerns public at last Thursday’s hearing of Chaffetz’s panel.

Martin testified that she and others have experienced “bullying, gender bias and favoritism” at Yosemite, as part of what she characterized as a hostile work environment. She further alleged that “belittling . . . and public questioning of one’s professional credibility is pervasive.”

Martin has worked for the federal government for 32 years and has been at Yosemite since 2006.

“Do you believe Superintendent Neubacher’s actions to be an isolated incident or are they reflective of a larger cultural problem within the National Park Service?” asked Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich.

“I have a reason to believe it is a larger cultural issue,” Martin said.

Neubacher sent an email to all Yosemite workers Sunday night, saying he wanted to “sincerely apologize” to anyone who may have been offended and pledging his intention to “enhance the working environment” at the park.

More broadly, the National Park Service has advised agency employees in writing that it is “implementing a comprehensive plan to identify and stop harassment . . . and create a safe and respectful work environment for every employee.”

The changes include establishing an ombudsman position to field complaints from employees.

“We must strive to prevent and end harassment, in all its forms, from our workplaces,” National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis declared in an email Monday to workers.

Michael Doyle: 202-383-6153, @MichaelDoyle10