National Park Service Centennial Blackened By Disturbing Allegations
BY DAVID S. LEWIS
The National Park Service, as it celebrates its 100th anniversary, has been plagued by documented cases of sexual exploitation of employees in the Grand Canyon, as boatman allegedly coerced and forced themselves upon female workers. Now NPS faces new allegations that Yellowstone National Park employees in supervisory positions have perpetrated similar acts against female employees and other forms of corruption and professional misconduct.
In an exclusive interview with the Montana Pioneer, a YNP employee, Robert Hester, has come forward detailing what he says has been a practice of abuse, exploitation, predatory sexual behavior, and reprisals in a certain division of Yellowstone National Park between 2011 and 2015.
More over, multiples sources (including a senior YNP official) have reported to the Pioneer allegations of recent sexual harassment or systemic financial misconduct, or both, at the Park.
Over the course of three hours on a warm August afternoon, Hester, in a face-to-face interview, alleged that severe sexual harassment has been perpetrated at Yellowstone, even causing, in one case, the emotional breakdown of a female worker.
From his earliest memories of employment at Yellowstone National Park, beginning in 2010, Hester said, “I was flabbergasted at what I saw and heard,” referring to overt talk and accept-ance of sexual exploitation of female workers in the department in which he worked.
“It was the men’s club,” he said, “they would speak openly about it.”
One female employee, he said, “never did anything … she was (in effect) paid for sex,” having been more or less kept by one of her supervisors for a sexual relationship, according to Hester, while doing little else.
Hester said the situation was well known in the Division, and that the female employee, a laborer, would “drink daily,” essentially being kept inebriated and available for favors for her superior. Hester said at one point he was asked to buy alcohol for the woman, but refused. He said the woman later “had a nervous breakdown,” which he learned from an eyewitness to the event, resulting from her exploitation and due to a conflict with her superior over the way she had been treated.
“She was then terminated,” Hester said, due to her objections and emotional state, which reportedly had become seriously degraded after she was targeted with personally abusive reprisals.
When asked about first hand observations on his part related to sexual harassment, Hester said that the climate of exploitation in his department was plain to see, including blatant physical groping, and that the sexual relationships and intent of superiors (that he said started with decisions to hire certain females) was no secret. It is Hester’s belief that at least one of the victims was specifically hired so that she could be exploited for sex due to her background.
Hester alleged that a department chief was aware of the abuse and involved in the sexual exploitation of another female employee, having once remarked to Hester, “All (female worker) is good for is (a certain sexual act).”
Hester also spoke of a supervisor who had basically claimed a female as his own property, putting the word out that another male employee should stay away from her, saying, “(female worker’s name) is mine.”
As the result of reaching out to multiple sources in the Park, a climate of intimidation and financial misconduct (in the hundreds of thousands of dollars) have been reported to this publication, and accounts of reprisals and threats of reprisals directed at those who might not cooperate with the corruption.
One employee, according to a source within the Park, participated in illegal financial misconduct that was reported to a higher up, who later promoted the employee. Another alleged perpetrator reportedly remarked, “‘I’ll never get caught, because if they catch you, someone has to take responsibility.’”
“…That’s the mentality,” we were told by a Park employee, “deal with it (only) when they have to, with hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk emphasized to the Pioneer, as did Hester and others, that they want people to come forward who know of, or have been the victims of, abuse or exploitation at Yellowstone National Park.
“If you can provide any additional encouragement for these employees to bring their concerns forward,” Wenk stated in an August 21 email, “the situation will be investigated and dealt with in an expeditious manner.”
Another YNP official recently acknowledged to the Pioneer that sexual harassment has been an issue at Yellowstone, and responded to our request for comment on various abuses, saying certain allegations against employees were recently reported and addressed. It is not clear if the official was referring to abuses referenced in this report, and our investigation revealed that the foremost alleged perpetrator remains in place at the Park.
Park Superintendent Wenk, while describing recent efforts to instruct seasonal employees about sexual harassment, seem-ed to contradict another Park official in his August 21 response to our inquiry, stating, “Neither (Park Assistant Superintendent Steve) Iobst nor I are aware of the situation that you have described.”
According to our sources, Park officials have been made aware of sexual harassment at Yellowstone.
Hester, who has a related case before the Equal Opportun-ity Employment Commission, suspects an “internal shakeup” may be imminent at YNP, and told us that the NPS regional office in Denver, with which Hester had been in contact, could possibly dispatch a team to remedy problems at Yellowstone. “Denver may choose to send a complete management team to take over,” he said.
Hester also alleges that YNP and NPS cover up wrongdoing. “They know about all of the things that are going on. Washington, DC, knows about it. They don’t want the embarrassment. It’s the centennial.”
Hester did suggest though, that complaints at YNP, even those of a serious nature, may not reach Superintendent Wenk, and instead can be treated as lower level personnel matters.
“It’s an atrocity,” Hester said, “the way these things are done there (at YNP).” Speaking of one female employee, whom he named, he said, “To see how she was treated—she was just treated like a common goddamn whore, and everybody was cool about it.”
Superintendent Wenk, in his response to the Pioneer, stated, “We provided sexual harassment training earlier this summer for seasonal employees…Similar required training for our permanent workforce will be conducted this fall.…I communicated to seasonal employees that concerns or complaints can be brought directly to my office.”
Wenk added: “We have no tolerance for reprisal. We expect all supervisors to take allegations seriously, if they do not, that situation also will be dealt with immediately.”
UPDATE: Due to this article, the Montana Pioneer and story were brought up in hearings before the Congressional House Oversight Committee on National Park Service. To find out what happened, click here.