THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Bringing the Truth to Light

Navigating sexual assault in the national parks

by Keven Griffen

Illustration by Juan Tang Hon

published March 10, 2017


In January 2017, Badlands National Park released a series of tweets that rocketed the National Parks Service to the center of a political firestorm. 

“The pre-industrial concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 280 parts per million (ppm). As of December 2016, 404.93 ppm,” @BadlandsNPS tweeted. 

A minute later they added, “Today, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is higher than at any time in the last 650,000 years.” 

By insinuating that rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are caused by human activities, Badlands directly contradicted President Trump’s statements that climate change is a hoax. Moreover, in tweeting about the issue at all, Badlands violated a ‘communication blackout’ ordered by President Trump’s transition team, which came after the official National Parks Twitter account (@NatlParkService) retweeted photos comparing the size of President Trump’s inauguration crowds to President Obama’s from 2012. According to that request, agencies including the Department of the Interior—which heads the National Park Service—were asked to stop sharing information that was not directly related to park activity, safety, or events.

The tweets were later deleted, but rogue National Park Service Twitter accounts soon began to proliferate, amassing millions of followers. The accounts, which generally focused on climate science or climate change, have been championed by some on the left as a heartening act of political resistance. In speaking about anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change as a scientific fact, many also saw the National Parks as standing up for the scientific goals of truth and objectivity, values that many scientists feel are being threatened by the Trump administration’s apparent disdain for facts. Refusing to compromise in the face of political pressure, Badlands did what every objective scientist strives to do: leave the emotions by the wayside, and focus on the facts. 

Yet these tweets—and the media attention that accompanied them—were anything but an exercise in objectivity. The agency is charged with protecting hundreds of delicate ecosystems and important heritage sites around the country, many of which are disproportionately threatened by rapid alterations in climate.

The agency has also had other concerns recently—issues that they haven’t been as keen to share on Twitter. Although 2016 marked the centennial celebration for the agency, the Park Service spent most of the year battling a series of sexual assault lawsuits filed in parks across the country, including icons like Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Yosemite. Alongside allegations of widespread sexual harassment, misconduct, and outright assault, there have been claims that administrators in many cases knew about the problems and failed to act, sometimes for years. Additionally, park officials have failed to “go rogue” to defend Title IX or to criticize President Trump’s pejorative remarks about women. If the National Park Service stands as a symbol for truth, objectivity, and political resistance—a status the media were quick to confer on the agency following the Twitter war—then these lawsuits must also be interrogated.

 

+++

 

The National Park Service has a long history of sexual harassment. In 2000, the national average for women experiencing sexual harassment was a little less than 1-in-2 for federal employees, according to a survey commissioned by the Park Service in that year. According to that study, 76 percent of female Parks Service Police officers said they had personally experienced sexual harassment during their tenure, while 81 percent stated that they knew someone who had experienced either sexual harassment or gender discrimination while working in the Parks Service. The rash of allegations made across the country in 2016 indicate that the problem is still pervasive. At the Grand Canyon in 2016, investigators from the Department of the Interior described a “15-year failure” to act on issues of sexual harassment—verbally and physically inappropriate conduct towards primarily female park employees that had gone unchecked for over a decade. Since the publication of that report, employees have come forward at Yellowstone, Yosemite, Cape Canaveral National Seashore, and others, bringing national attention to an apparently widespread problem. 

It’s not just relegated to Park Police officers, either. Many people who work in the Park Service do so as field researchers or scientists, studying topics that range from biology to archaeology. A 2014 study published in Nature reported that 64 percent of scientists surveyed (mostly archaeologists and anthropologists) had been sexually harassed while doing field research—most of them female trainees ranging from the high school to postdoctoral level. The same study found that a third of female respondents reported incidents of sexual assault, and that women were 3.5 times more likely to experience harassment than men. Although these respondents were not necessarily part of the Park Service, this study indicates that small groups of people working in close quarters in the backcountry are frequently subjected to higher assault.

The National Parks were founded with the idea that people—specifically white men—needed a respite from industrial society when the dirtiness and structure of their urban lives became too much to bear. John Muir, who was influential in establishing Yosemite as one of the nation’s earliest parks, wrote that, “thousands of nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are discovering that going to the mountains is going home,” a sentiment that envisions the parks as a place to be free from the rapidly encroaching bounds of society. Yet for Muir and others, the return to freedom was not to be delivered equally. In order to fit places like Yosemite Valley and Yellowstone into their vision of wilderness, early Park administrators ordered indigenous people to abandon lands within the borders of proposed parks—a process that was neither orderly nor peaceful. Early parks were designed to allow primarily wealthy, white men to experience the wildness of an imagined primeval state, conferring absolute freedom to behave as they pleased upon these lucky few while simultaneously displacing and erasing thousands of others. 

This sense of entitlement—the idea that certain people can behave however they want in the wilderness because it’s a healthy escape from their daily lives—is the root of many of the sexual harassment complaints reported in the National Parks Service. Victims describe a culture where mistreatment was common, but consequences slow in coming—especially when these incidents took place far from cities, roads, or cell phone service.

Perpetrators of sexual harassment are refusing to respect the boundaries set by their female peers in wilderness settings, and the lack of supervision in many backcountry assignments compounds the problem. With no witnesses, cases of this nature often boil down to hearsay arguments that are difficult to resolve. Many women have chosen to leave the parks rather than wait for their case to stagnate in a bureaucratic backlog. In 2016, women made up just 8,700 of 23,000 total Park Service employees, according to an article in the Atlantic. Women also occupy far fewer supervisory roles than men. Without greater representation within the agency, it becomes harder and harder for women to speak out about the mistreatment they may be facing, particularly if they feel uncomfortable reporting it to a male colleague or supervisor. 

This is not to say that the Park Service is unaware of—or refusing to address—the sexual harassment that takes place in its environs. Facing pressure from Congress, Director Jon Jarvis promised that the agency is taking sexual harassment very seriously, and multiple Congressmen, media outlets, and grassroots organizations have sworn to hold the National Park Service to that statement.  Yet the agency has a long way to go before female voices are heard and valued to the same extent that male voices are, and that doesn’t even begin to touch on the representation of people of color, LGBTQ+ folks, and other underrepresented groups within the agency. 

Under Trump, there will likely be minimal pressure to develop a more rigorous policy for dealing with sexual assault in the Parks. As a segment of the federal government, Badlands and the National Park Service will likely continue to be censored on Twitter, or even in the pamphlets and resources shared at information centers in the parks themselves. After the backlash from the Badlands tweets, it is likely that official Park Service platforms will continue to be barred from sharing objective truths, or be used to disseminate such information in the near future. But the media have no such constraints, and their coverage of this episode is part of the problem. Although the sexual harassment cases were covered in the months leading up to this incident, few if any news outlets mentioned those allegations while they touted the Park Service as a rebel agency, standing up for truth in the midst of swirling misinformation. Many on the left were quick to herald the anonymous rangers at Badlands as heroes; the same people usually quick to call for increased egalitarianism in the workplace. Letting the Park Service off the hook for one issue because it doesn’t fit with the new narrative is not only dangerous, it also does the agency, and the public, a disservice. 

In the sciences, it is often said that the strongest arguments are those that don’t ‘cherry pick’ their data to fit hypotheses; rather, they use all of the data in their wheelhouse in pursuit of the truth. In the recent and softer light shining on the NPS, this kind of objectivity is difficult to come by, particularly when some evidence might be damaging to the new and valuable public image. In the Park Service, that means admitting to a legacy of sexual harassment and colonialism while also acknowledging how important it is to tackle climate change. In science, similar challenges apply. While many of the people who study climate change have long wished to stay out of the political fray for rear of seeming biased, a more critically conscious objective under this administration is to openly acknowledge the on-the-ground realities that affect the topics researchers study.

Issues like climate change do not exist in a vacuum: they have ramifications that span from the mistreatment of female field researchers to the vulnerability of those affected by rising seas and changing weather. Just as the Park Service will be able to do its best work by bringing the whole truth of their complicated agency to light, the scientific community may want to consider that the most important facts are sometimes those that are the least easy to digest. Engaging with politics and activism doesn’t lessen objectivity: it just demands that researchers remain conscious of the ways their work impacts the communities they strive to serve.

 

KEVEN GRIFFEN B‘17 believes in going rogue.