Miles below the rim of the Grand Canyon deep in the wilderness, on river trips lasting weeks at a time, teams of National Park Service workers — supervisors, researchers, boatmen and law enforcement — manage public safety and the canyon’s wildlife and archaeological sites. Often satellite phones are their only connection to the outside world.
The women in this story did not wish to use their real names because of concerns for their own safety.
“I mean that’s one of the beauties of it is that you’re in a wilderness environment and you are isolated and you feel completely removed from the world,” one woman, an intern, said. “But when you’re starting to talk about feeling unsafe … it did feel very scary to know that you were basically stuck in a situation.”
That’s the way she felt when a boatman put a camera up her skirt and took a picture. On the same night she says a second boatman threatened another woman with an ax, yelling profanities.
“Basically things to the effect of, ‘you need to keep your mouth shut,’” the first woman said. “There was alcohol involved and I think that amped up the situation indeed but that was a very terrifying moment.”
A female supervisor on the trip did report the camera incident and that boatman was suspended for 30 days. He later quit.
When 13 former and current park employees sent the 2014 letter to the Interior Department, they sent a copy to Grand Canyon Superintendent Dave Uberaga. In it were details of the misconduct they say they endured, along with their names, addresses and phone numbers. The report said that letter was then shared with two of the named offenders.
“It was painful to put all that information out there,” the former intern said. “It was painful and it was scary to know those suspects had access to that information. It just shows there are huge problems in management at Grand Canyon National Park.”
The two suspects then filed a counter-complaint, effectively ending her career at the park.
Soon after the park received the letter, management prohibited alcohol on park river trips. While a large factor, many said it doesn’t solve the problem.
Another complainant worked as a river ranger from 2009 to 2012. She and another government employee were on duty, sober, in the middle of the day.
“We were on a boat together,” she said. “He asked me to pull over separate us from the group ... he exposed his genitalia to me and propositioned me for sex. There were three supervisors on that trip … And I went and told a supervisor what happened and he didn’t do anything.”
She said she didn’t make a formal complaint at the time.
“This was a good ol’ boy club,” the second woman said. “You felt like I relied on those guys to have my back and if I flipped a boat I felt like I can’t make a formal complaint against them.”
She did make sure she was never alone with him again, but says she put up with a hostile work environment for four years before resigning and coming forward.
The federal Office of Inspector General released a report Jan. 12 confirming that National Park Service employees in the Grand Canyon preyed on their female coworkers demanding sex, and punishing women who refused.
In addition to the 13 whistleblowers, the OIG Report found 22 other employees at Grand Canyon who said they witnessed or experienced sexual harassment and hostile work environments. Because a job in the Grand Canyon is highly coveted, many said they just put up with the abuse.
“At the time I was really afraid of coming forward, that I might lose my big chance of working in the Grand Canyon,” said a female river guide contracted by the park.
The report confirmed that when women refused advances or complained, they were shamed, denied food on trips or simply ignored.
A fourth woman said they refused to train her.
“He gave me a backrub,” she said. "He smacked me on the butt numerous times. I was a new employee so I didn’t know anything. I had a radio, I didn’t know how to get out on it.”
She said the other boatman on the trip was hostile toward her. She was the only female in the river district and so she felt isolated.
“It was just an atmosphere of intimidation, trying to dominate, just completely hostile yelling and bullying,” the fourth woman said. "It was well known this sort of atmosphere went on at the river district."
When reported to supervisors, many of the complaints were ignored or not properly investigated.
“It came down to my word against their word the men in the boat shop. And it seemed they were taking their word and not mine,” she said.
The Park Service did take action in many cases — they issued written reprimands to some employees, and suspended or terminated others. Still, it didn’t solve the problem.
“I know that in my situation somebody was reprimanded,” the river guide said. “I think he got 10 days off which to me sounds like more of a vacation rather than a reprimand. But the fact that he continued to work there 16 years, continuing to do this, I don’t understand that.”
National Park Service spokesman James Doyle said as a result of this report, the Grand Canyon will be making many changes in coming months.
“The National Park Service has zero tolerance for the behavior described in the OIG report,” Doyle said. “This is absolutely unacceptable to us on every level. And we’re working starting now to change the culture there.”
Doyle said some disciplinary action has been taken and more will be taken. In the OIG report at least one boatman, called Boatman 3, was repeatedly named in complaints but still had his job. Here’s the second woman, the river ranger:
“We want it to stop,” the second woman said. “I mean, we want a workplace free of sexual harassment ,free of violence. We would like people held accountable. We would like repeat offenders their positions terminated. You can’t have changed, that’s not zero tolerance. You’re giving these guys multiple chances.”
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