USA – Denice Rice handles things for herself. A more than 20-year veteran of the US Forest Service’s wildfire operations, she’s spent weeks at a time working blazes deep in the wilderness. So she thought she could manage when, in 2009, her new second-in-line supervisor started giving 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 off and it would stop for a while, and then it would start up again.” But in 2011, the two got into an argument and he assaulted her, poking her breasts with a letter opener, as she related in 2016 testimony before a congressional committee examining sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the US Department of Agriculture, which oversees the forest service. The man did it “with a smile on his face in an arrogant way like he could get away with it. And I stood there in shock.”
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 year the man who allegedly assaulted her had been invited to give a motivational speech to firefighters. And Rice says she continues to pay the price for having spoken up about sexual harassment at the forest service, a federal agency that manages 190m acres of land. Her experiences are by no means unique.
When Tony Tooke, the director of the forest service, resigned last month while being investigated for having inappropriate relationships with subordinates, a former forest 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 agencies navigate the sexual harassment complaint process.
The occurrence of serial abusers rising through the ranks is so familiar to some women in federal land agencies that they have a term for it: “The media friendly version is a ‘disciplinary promotion’. We call it fuck up to move up,” says Jonel Wagoner, who worked for the forest service from 1980 until retiring in 2016.
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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 careers, and that the men involved in these complaints were not subject to meaningful disciplinary action. Which might help explain why a man 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 trips in the Grand Canyon was brought back.
The work in the agencies that oversee America’s parks and forests is distinctive. It’s often remote, which makes it attractive to people like Rice. She says that she loves that her job takes place in the woods. But a hypermasculine culture pervades some firefighting crews, where only about 15% are women. And the remoteness can mean women are sometimes left alone with predatory men, well outside of any cellphone’s signal. That’s what happened to Elizabeth, who asked to use a pseudonym to protect her identity because she still works in firefighting.
Whenever Elizabeth was alone in her group’s remote Pacific north-west bunkhouse – where her phone rarely worked – her crew’s fire management officer would find an excuse to visit.
“I told my supervisor that I didn’t want to be alone with this guy; that he creeps me out,” remembers Elizabeth. “He chuckled dismissively and said, ‘oh, that’s just how he is.’ They thought it was really funny that I was creeped out by this guy.”
A few weeks later, Elizabeth was alone in the bunkhouse and the officer let himself in. He found her in the kitchen and tried to block her from leaving. Elizabeth’s gut told her that something bad was about to happen and she ran outside. “But if I’d have shown even a second of hesitation, I know it would have gone differently,” she said.
A colleague made a complaint on Elizabeth’s behalf, which the Guardian confirmed with an official knowledgeable about the situation but who did not have permission to speak on the issue. Her harasser resigned before he could be fired, according to Elizabeth’s supervisor. The latter generates a permanent mark on a federal employment record, while the former carries no consequences.
‘The racism and sexism began immediately’
Women who report harassment often have no idea how their complaint has been acted upon. Elisa Lopez-Crowder started working in fire for the forest service in 2010. She was a navy veteran, and a knew how to navigate male-dominated workforces. The first few weeks on the job, things went well. But then a new assistant captain joined the crew. “The racist and sexist comments began almost immediately. He told me flat-out that he didn’t believe women belonged in fire,” she says. Lopez-Crowder is Mexican-American, and he would say things like “Is your skin dirty, or is that just your skin color?”
One day, while the crew was digging trenches, the assistant captain began taunting Lopez-Crowder. “After a while I stopped paying attention to what he was saying because it bothered me so much,” so he escalated his abuse by grabbing Lopez-Crowder by her pack, shoving her to the ground, and pinning her there with his foot. She was shocked and humiliated. A colleague reported the incident, and Lopez-Crowder filed a formal complaint.
A year later, Lopez-Crowder and several other women who reported harassment met with the then agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, and the chief of the forest service, Tom Tidwell, who “said he’d personally taken care of my problem”. Lopez-Crowder texted her former fire captain to confirm the man had been removed. “He said, ‘No, that’s not true, I authorized his time sheet two days ago.’”
ilsack reiterated in a later meeting that her problem had been dealt with, and Lopez-Crowder had the unenviable task of correcting him.
“It took a year and a half [from the time she reported] for him to be terminated,” she said, but does not know if he was fired or just resigned. And she may never know. Because personnel files are considered confidential and not subject to public-records requests, getting information on the outcome of an investigation is near impossible.
The agency says changes are coming. The forest service has announced that it plans to use independent investigators in all of its harassment claims and has opened a harassment-reporting center. “We know only strong and unambiguous action will get us to where we want to be,” the new forest service chief, Vicki Christiansen, said in a statement to the Guardian.
For some women, these measures will come too late. Wagoner and Donnelly say they faced retaliation and spent their last few years in the forest service with menial responsibilities.
As for Rice, in the 2016 congressional hearing, a senior official testified that her abuser was allowed to retire, keeping his full benefits. The official insisted that the man was not paid for a motivational speech he was asked to give, earlier that year, to a forest service hotshot crew.
“The guy should not only have been fired, he should have been arrested!” shouted Gary Palmer, a Republican congressman from Alabama.
Still, Rice is gearing up for the summer fire season, and will keep fighting blazes as long as she can. On the day she spoke to the Guardian, she was wearing a 45-pound weight vest and power-hiking up a mountainside, getting ready for her physical fitness tests. She struck a note of defiance. “I love my job. I’m good at my job. I’m not leaving. They’re going to have to look at me every single day.”