Why Female River Guides Aren’t Welcome in the Grand Canyon

grand-canyon-harassment-illustration_hOutside Magazine | March 30, 2016—By AC Shilton

In early January, the Department of the Interior’s Inspector General released a 13-page report chronicling 15 years of sexual harassment and hostile working conditions for National Park Service employees working on the Colorado River. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell requested the investigation after 13 Park Service employees sent letters to Jewell detailing their experiences working in the Grand Canyon’s River District, a subsection of the Park Service that oversees the Colorado River. The conclusion by the Inspector General was stunning:
“We found evidence of a long-term pattern of sexual harassment and hostile work environment in the GRCA River District,” the report said. “In addition to the 13 original complainants, we identified 22 other individuals who reported experiencing or witnessing sexual harassment and hostile work environments while working in the River District.”

The report referred to both current and former Park Service boatmen, supervisors, and other employees. Names were not mentioned. Instead, those bringing allegations were referred to as Employees 1-19, and those accused of wrongdoing were called Boatman 1, 2, and 3, and Supervisors 1-7. Instances of sexual harassment included episodes in which Boatman 1 repeatedly propositioned Employees 2 and 3 for sex, and Boatman 2 took a photo up Employee 1’s skirt. Examples of creating a hostile work environment included Boatman 3 refusing to provide food to women on his trips if they rejected his sexual advances, and yelling and threatening Employee 4 while holding an axe.

The boatmen mentioned in the report received small reprimands over the years for their actions, such as written warnings and brief suspensions. For example, in one incident in 2004, Supervisor 1 received a ten-day suspension for grabbing a woman’s crotch. By contrast, after two female workers—Employees 1 and 2 in the federal report—were accused of having “twerked” and drank from a penis-shaped straw during a river trip party in 2014, managers refused to renew their employment contracts. According to the report, the investigation into their alleged behavior was not as thorough as it should have been, considering the severity of the punishment.

As damning as the report is, some victims say its findings only scratch the surface of the demoralizing day-to-day reality for female river rangers in the Grand Canyon. According to three former employees who Outside spoke to about their time on the river, the issues in the canyon don’t end with a few lewd boatmen. Rather, they’re indicative of systemic failures on the part of the Park Service to protect workers from a harmful environment. These women claim that both mid-level managers and top park brass were aware of these issues for years, and that many of the supervisors and employees mentioned in the report remain in their positions today.

The Park Service responded to the report in February by promising discipline and sweeping changes. A plan issued in early February by Sue Masica, the director of the Intermountain Region, which overseas Grand Canyon National Park, sets forth an eight-month timeline for changing the culture on the river and disciplining employees—including park superintendent Dave Uberuaga and deputy superintendent Diane Chalfant. On March 16, Uberuaga announced the reorganization of the River District Office—its six employees will be reassigned to other areas of the park, according to a DOI spokesperson—and acknowledged that “a culture was tolerated that allowed sexual harassment and created a hostile work environment.” Details of the district reorganization are “still in development,” according to an emailed statement from a Park Service spokesperson.

Some of the changes in Masica’s plan, like adding more pre-trip training and requiring uniforms to be worn at all times, will be implemented quickly. Other items—like a top-to-bottom review of river culture—may not happen until later this year. Details on punishment for both remaining boatmen and supervisors were left vague, since Park Service policy requires that punishment be kept confidential.

All three women Outside spoke to are pursuing Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) claims against the Park Service. The commission is designed to help mediate and investigate employees’ complaints of unlawful discrimination against their employers. Rachel Brady (Employee 5 in the federal report) is currently in mediation. If a settlement isn’t reached at a meeting scheduled for late April, and the two sides can’t come to terms during an administrative hearing with the EEOC, Brady may choose to take her case to federal court. A second woman we spoke to, who requested to go by the pseudonym Allison (Employee 1), is currently working to schedule a mediation. The third former employee, who requested to use the pseudonym Katie (Employee 3), filed a separate EEOC claim earlier this month.

This is the first section of an online feature at Outside Magazine.

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