After Promising Fixes, National Park Service Faces Renewed Criticisms of Toxic Culture

The agency "desperately needs a new broom to sweep its leadership ranks clean," group says.

Amid rampant accusations of sexual harassment and other widespread misconduct, the now acting director of the National Park Service promised last year to transform the agency by creating a plan to “fundamentally change” its culture. So far, NPS is not receiving good reviews.

The NPS culture is instead breeding corruption, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. Specifically, PEER accused the agency of shielding its malfeasant and poorly performing managers from proper discipline, despite clear evidence of bad behavior. Rank-and-file employees are punished much more readily, the group said in calling for new political leadership at the agency.

Former Northeast Regional Director Michael Caldwell, for example, received reimbursement for more than $17,000 in inappropriate travel, according to a 2016 report from the Interior Department’s inspector general. Caldwell nonetheless became the chief of staff for the Planning, Facilities and Lands division last month.

Tom Crosson, an NPS spokesman, said the agency reached a “confidential agreement” with Caldwell subsequent to the IG report. The new position, Crosson said, is a non-supervisory role.

The report followed a series of reports—and multiple subsequent congressional hearings—from the Interior Department’s inspector general finding repeated instances of sexual harassment at various agency locations, including a particularly explosive investigation into the Grand Canyon region.

Reynolds, the current acting NPS director, told a House committee in September 2016 the agency was installing new leadership at problem regions, mandating harassment training, creating a direct reporting channel between equal employment opportunity officials and the director, and requiring investigations into reports of harassment within 14 days. 

“We want to become a model agency. We will become a model agency,” said Reynolds, then the deputy director for operations. “I share your disgust.”

Myrna Palfrey, who served as superintendent of Canaveral National Seashore in Titusville, Florida, during a period in which the IG found multiple incidents of sexual harassment, was recently reassigned to her old job after a temporary reassignment. The lack of any public discipline is breaking Caldwell’s promise, PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch said.

“In the Park Service, immunity for its managers appears immutable,” said Ruch. “Lower-level employees would be, and often are, fired for this type of misconduct.”

Crosson said NPS is simply dealing with issues as they arise according to its procedures.

“The National Park Service is committed to creating a more accountable and responsible culture at all levels of the organization, particularly among its leaders,” Crosson said. “National Park Service leadership adjudicates every disciplinary matter on a case-by-case basis to ensure every employee is treated fairly and in accordance with rules and policies governing personnel management.”

Ruch called the difficulty of disciplining federal employees an unfounded excuse, despite former NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis last year asking Congress for more firing authority to deal with those involved in the harassment scandal. The PEER director highlighted the many “honest and dedicated” individuals in NPS management being tarnished by the lack of accountability for some. He noted that President Trump has yet to nominate a permanent NPS director, or any Interior official with National Parks as part of their purview.

“The Park Service desperately needs a new broom to sweep its leadership ranks clean,” Ruch said.