WASHINGTON — Outgoing advisers of the National Park Service who stepped down the coming week over annoyances with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke are swaying back at what they called “degrading, ” “slanderous” and dishonest affirms from a department official.
In a strongly worded statement Wednesday, Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift celebrated the resignation of nearly the entire National Park Service Advisory Board, accusing them among other things of allowing a culture of sexual harassment to fester at national parks.
“We greet their resignations and is looking forward to nothing less than quitting from members who found it convenient to turn a blind eye to wives being sexually harassed at National park, ” Swift told the Washington Examiner and several other media outlets . The spokeswoman also dismissed as “patently false” the advisers’ claims that the department had refused to engage with them over the last year, as The Washington Post first reported.
Departing board Chairman Tony Knowles told the Post that the panel had been “frozen out” by Zinke and was not consulted on key NPS decisions, including hiking visitor fees at several national park. Only two of the board’s 12 members remain.
Established in 1935, this body of unpaid volunteers advises the Interior Department and the director of the NPS on a wide range of matters and policies at the organization, from the designation of historic and natural landmarks to addressing climate change. However, they are not employees of the National Park Service, let alone administrators. And they played no role in determining how the agency should address the sexual harassment and assault issues that have attained national headlines in recent years, two board members who quitted the coming week told HuffPost on Thursday.
“I read the L.A. Times. Of course I was aware of it, ” Belinda Faustinos, a former board member from California, said of the allegations. “But was that my job as an advisory board member? No.”
Faustinos, who in 2011 retired as executive officer of the San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy, said Swift’s condemnation merely confirmed that she and her colleagues induced the right decision to leave. The actions taken by Zinke’s team over the last year are not consistent with the values of the park service or the board, she said.
“This administration tends to double down when they get challenged on anything, and that’s exactly what happened, ” she told HuffPost. “I’m not shocked or surprised. I’m disappointed. I am beyond belief that we’re actually in this situation.”
In October, the Interior Department liberated the results of an NPS survey that received 38. 7 percent of its employees had experienced some form of harassment or discrimination over a one-year interval. Just over 10 percent reported being sexually harassed.
Zinke has promised to crack down on a problem that he blamed on his predecessors.
“All employees have the right to work in an environment that is safe and harassment-free, ” he said in an October statement. “I’ve removed a number of people who were abusive or acted improperly that other administrations were too afraid to or just became a blind eye to.”
Gretchen Long, a board member from Wyoming who also cease the coming week, echoed Faustinos. Sexual harassment, she said, is a management issue that the board never discussed, in part because of privacy laws. And while a general misunderstanding about the advisory board’s responsibilities may have factored into Swift’s response, both girls suspect relevant agencies acted maliciously.
“They politicized the good work of citizen volunteers who represent both a broad-spectrum political spectrum and a broad-spectrum background and expertise, ” Long said.
Long added that she was “shocked” to see the Interior Department put under such a “slanderous” statement. “I think that the degrading style of the response and the dishonesty of the response is quite unsettling only from a point of view of an American citizen, ” she said.
Faustinos called it a “tactical” move that is being used by people throughout the administration.
“That seems to be something that I see happening a lot, ” she told HuffPost. “Untruths. Not knowing what they’re talking about, and trying to turn the messaging around to make it a counterattack.”
Faustinos and Long likewise disputed Swift’s claim that as recently as this month and before the board member resignations, the agency was “working with the board to renew their charter, schedule a meet and fill vacancies.”
“It just never happened, ” Long said.
In her statement, Swift likewise rejected the reported resignation of two members whose terms expired back in July as a “hollow and dishonest political stunt.” And she said the department would “fast-track filling these new vacancies with people who are actually dedicated to working with government departments to better our national parks.”
Long and Faustinos stressed the importance of the advisory board and said they are extremely proud of the work they did during their terms to improve the park service. And while they expected that the Trump administration would move in its own direction and appoint new members, they hoped for an opportunity to sit down with Zinke to discuss initiatives that the board championed over the last several years.
Faustinos said Interior’s aggressive and inaccurate statement Wednesday is just another is making an effort to distract from the real issue: “That the people of this great country are just being blindsided by all these ridiculous policies that are coming out, from fee hikes[ at national park] to drillingin the Arctic.”
“The truth doesn’t appears to matter[ to them ], ” she said.
The Interior Department did not respond to HuffPost’s email Thursday trying clarification on how it believes the advisory council failed to take action on sexual harassment.