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National Park Service responds to sexual misconduct on Colorado River

The National Park Service is responsible for 281 miles of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. Loretta Yerian/WGCN

The National Park Service is responsible for 281 miles of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. Loretta Yerian/WGCN

GRAND CANYON, Ariz. - The National Park Service (NPS) released a report beginning to outline disciplinary action because of sexual misconduct on NPS river trips in the Grand Canyon.

On Feb. 11 Sue Masica, director for the Intermountain Region of the NPS, said sexual misconduct in the Grand Canyon River District (GRCA) described in a Jan. 12 investigation and report by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) is being addressed.

Masica outlined a number of changes to be implemented on the river corridor.

"The behavior described is unacceptable; no NPS employee should ever experience the type of behavior described in the report. It is particularly disappointing that previous efforts to change the culture in the River District failed to improve working conditions. I have zero tolerance for the behavior described in the OIG investigation," Masica said in the report.

According to the Jan. 12 OIG report, Grand Canyon Superintendent Dave Uberuaga and Deputy Superintendent Diane Chalfant were aware of the allegations and were responsible for not taking appropriate action.

Additionally, Masica said GRCA appeared to have more sexual harassment complaints than other NPS parks, and that alcohol consumption during river trips may have contributed to those incidents. She felt that the need for confidentiality during disciplinary actions may have led to dissatisfaction among GRCA employees, who may have incorrectly believed GRCA managers were not responding to the employees' complaints.

According to the Associated Press, Masica said Uberuaga and Chalfant are responsible for complying with the Department of Interior's (DOI) Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) policy. Masica set a May 1 deadline for disciplinary action against them, but the results likely won't be revealed publicly because they are considered personal matters.

The Jan. 12 investigative report came out after a Sept. 2014 letter addressed to DOI Secretary Sally Jewell from 13 former and current National Park Service (NPS) employees claimed sexual harassment and misconduct on the Colorado River by coworkers and supervisors. The employees worked on the River District and said sexual misconduct had been going on for over 15 years.

According to the report, investigators found numerous incidents of "discrimination, retaliation and a sexually hostile work environment" on NPS river trips.

Additionally, investigators said many of the incidents were reported to GRCA supervisors and were not properly investigated or reported to NPS human resource (HR) or EEO representatives.

"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. We also confirmed that some of the incidents were reported to GRCA supervisors and managers but were not properly investigated or reported to HR and EEO."

Some immediate changes outlined by Intermountain Regional offices for GRCA include prohibiting alcohol on any NPS river trips, requiring pre-trip meetings and daily check ins by project leaders, wearing appropriate uniforms and requiring post trip debriefings.

Other changes include conducting reference checks for former government employees, revising sexual harassment policies, training managers to properly handle and disseminate sexual harassment as well as maintaining strict adherence for any documents containing confidential reports, third party review of river operations to address changing the culture and organizational dynamics on river trips and training for employees to ensure a better understanding of EEO policies.

Additional changes for river trip volunteers was also outlined. NPS said it will 'increase management oversight over selecting former NPS employees as volunteers and will prohibit former employees who have been disciplined for misconduct from returning as volunteers to the same environment in which they had been disciplined. Finally, the park plans to 'conduct training for NPS management and leadership officials, to include park superintendents, on the topics encompassed by the OIG investigation as a lessons learned opportunity to heighten awareness and reinforce expectations for appropriate handling of situations.'

One of the employees identified in the original report is still employed with GRCA.

"In light of the OIG report, it is appropriate to take appropriate disciplinary or personnel action to remove this individual from the specific work environment of the River District," the Intermountain Region report said.

About NPS river trips

The Grand Canyon National Park's River District (GRCA) has law enforcement and emergency-services jurisdiction over the Colorado River corridor of GRCA. The River District is also responsible for managing the NPS river trips. NPS conducts river trips approximately 12 times per year, in all seasons. The trips, each of which may last several weeks, have various purposes, including education, scientific research and maintenance of trails and shorelines. Trip participants come from a variety of other GRCA work units, including vegetation and archeology programs in addition to other outside entities, including commercial contractors, volunteer organizations and educational programs.

Each river trip has two experienced employees designated as leaders. A River District boatman will act as trip leader; in this capacity, the boatman is responsible for handling navigation, river safety, camping and supplies and other river-related activities. The second leader or project leader, is usually a trip participant from one of the programs doing work on the trip. The project leader manages the projects and tasks that program employees must complete to meet the trip's goals.

The River District has a history of reported incidents of sexual harassment and hostile work environments against its employees. Many of these incidents allegedly occurred during river trips, according to the Jan. 12 'Report of Investigation: Misconduct in the Grand Canyon River District.'

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