Women in the US Forest Service love what they do. But they likewise describe a toxic male context that tolerates, and even promotes, their harassers
Denice Rice handles things for herself. A more than 20 -year veteran of the US Forest Service’s wildfire functionings, she’s spent weeks at a time operating flames deep in the wilderness. So she supposed she could manage when, in 2009, her new second-in-line superintendent started committing her unwanted attention.” He immediately befriended me and started mentoring me, and from there it just got weird ,” she remembers.
For two years she said nothing.” He’d get handsy and then I’d snap and make him back up and it would stop for a while, and then it would start up again .” But in 2011, the two got into an contention and he assaulted her, poking her breasts with a letter opener, as she related in 2016 witnes before a congressional committee analyzing sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the US Department of Agriculture, which oversees the forest service. The humankind did it” with a smile on his face in an arrogant style like he could get away with it. And I stood there in shock .”
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The highest-ranking Democrat on the committee, Elijah Cummings, responded with a grand statement:” We want to do everything in our power to surround you with some protection .”
Yet that same time the man who allegedly assaulted her had been invited to give a motivational speech to firefighters. And Rice mentions she continues to pay the price for having spoken up about sexual harassment at the forest service, a federal agency that manages 190 m acres of ground. Her experiences are by no means unique.
When Tony Tooke, the manager of the forest service, resigned last month while being investigated for having inappropriate relationships with subordinates, a former wood service employee named Lesa Donnelly was dismayed- but not surprised- that he had risen so far up the ranks.” It’s basic Kindergarten 101, there has to be accountability for people to take this seriously ,” said Donnelly, who retired from the forest service in 2002 and has spent her retirement helping hundreds of women in public lands bureaux navigate the sexual harassment objection process.
The occurrence of serial abusers rising through the ranks is so familiar to some women in federal land agencies that they have a word for it:” The media friendly version is a’ disciplinary advertising ‘. We call it fuck up to move up ,” says Jonel Wagoner, who worked for the forest service from 1980 until retiring in 2016.
Wagoner and Rice are two of eight female plaintiffs who are represented by Donnelly and are bringing a class action suit against the forest service on behalf of female firefighters in California. They both say speaking out was ruinous to their jobs, and that the men involved in these complaints were not subject to meaningful disciplinary action. Which might help explain why a human like Tooke could make it to the very top of the agency.
The National Park Service is also in the midst of a harassment crisis, with major investigations at the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Canaveral National Seashore, and several other parks. A 2017 survey sent out to employees of the park service found that 38.7% of employees had experienced some sort of harassment in the preceding 12 months.
Occasionally, harassers even get rehired. In 2014, the park service issued an apologetic memo after an employee accused of repeated incidents of sexual harassment and misconduct on river journeys in the Grand Canyon was brought back.