KINGS CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Calif. — U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is personally encouraging National Park Service employees to report any forms of workplace harassment they experience or witness, he said Friday during a two-day swing through parks, including Yosemite, where the former superintendent retired following complaints of bullying.
Zinke underscored that he will not put up with any workplace harassment, an issue that surfaced last year and part of the reason for his visit to California.
Rangers should feel good coming to work, he said.
“I don’t expect them to cry on the way home,” Zinke told reporters gathered inside a grove of trees at Kings Canyon National Park, calling for a cultural shift in the entire parks system. “If you see it, you know, stand up. Let’s all correct it together.”
Investigations began last year when employees at Yellowstone National Park complained about a pervasive “men’s club” environment that encouraged the exploitation and abuse of female workers. At Yosemite, famous for stunning granite rock formations and plunging waterfalls, employees had complained that the superintendent created a toxic work environment. Harassment in the national parks became the subject of congressional hearings.
The Interior Department’s inspector general this week released reports revealing that Yosemite’s former superintendent belittled employees, using words such as “stupid,” ”bozo” and “lazy,” and was biased against women.
Former Yosemite Superintendent Don Neubacher denied harassing employees or creating a hostile work environment. He told investigators he was very busy, and that if he seemed dismissive, it was not intentional.
“At Yosemite, you work at a fast pace, and I do think some people want to ponder things for a long time, which we don’t have time for,” he said.
Yellowstone National Park instituted new sexual harassment training that had been ongoing for employees and managers long before government investigators began looking into the claims, park Superintendent Dan Wenk said.
“We started dealing with this situation even before we had the allegations and not because of any specific knowledge of things in Yellowstone,” Wenk said Thursday. “There were issues throughout the national park system last year.”
Zinke on Thursday emailed park service employees and managers, outlining their responsibility for creating an environment free of “hostile, intimidating, or offensive” behavior, and instructing them on steps to take to report different levels of harassment that could include criminal behavior.
In his California trip, Zinke also met in Sacramento with Gov. Jerry Brown, where the two talked about the state’s aging water infrastructure and challenges providing water to a growing population and its vital farmland.
Zinke said he’s not a proponent of selling off public land, but he said the country must produce more energy domestically, an issue of national security. Zinke said he won’t allow the parks to be closed in any future budget fights that could shut down government.
A former military commander, Zinke wore a yellow hardhat, leather gloves and firefighter garb in a visit to Kings Canyon National Park, joining a hot-shot crew of firefighters to burn piles of dead trees on fire. He looked at the giant, 2,000-year-old sequoia trees and visited areas recently blackened by wildfire during California’s five-year drought that killed millions of trees.
Woody Smeck, superintendent of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, said his parks have not been ensnared in the controversy revealed elsewhere. Zinke made his expectations clear that he is set to change the culture and end harassment, Smeck said.
“It’s an expectation I share,” Smeck said. “I try to push with employees that it’s about respecting individuals, respecting each other, valuing our differences.”
Yosemite Ranger Jamie Richards said Zinke — in his first ever visit to Yosemite — toured the park and met with the interim superintendent. Zinke also met briefly with 150 of Yosemite’s workers, answering questions.
“He gave a very strong message of his zero-tolerance for any form of harassment,” Richards said. “We are a team.”
Associated Press writer Mead Gruver contributed to this report.