Yosemite National Park Superintendent Don Neubacher has broadly apologized to park employees, in a remarkable bow to harsh criticisms leveled last week at a congressional oversight hearing.
Amid a newly revealed Interior Department investigation, and with whistleblowers and lawmakers alike now scrutinizing his actions closely, Neubacher offered contrition for what he acknowledged to be “serious staff concerns.”
“It was never my intention, in any way, to offend any employee over the course of the six and a half years I have been superintendent,” Neubacher wrote in an email sent Sunday night to park staff. “If I did offend any of you at any time, I want to sincerely apologize.”
Neubacher added that he and the park’s senior staffers are “working on ways to enhance the working environment at Yosemite,” and he said they hoped to “share some additional information and next steps . . . early this week.”
Yosemite’s superintendent since early 2010, Neubacher emailed all park employees Sunday evening after his leadership was blasted at a hearing last Thursday of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The panel zeroed in on Yosemite as part of a broader look at park service management problems.
“In Yosemite National Park today, dozens of people, the majority of whom are women, are being bullied, belittled, disenfranchised and marginalized from their roles as dedicated professionals,” Kelly Martin, chief of the park’s fire and aviation branch, said in written testimony.
Martin added that investigators “are likely to find accounts of women and men being publicly humiliated by the superintendent, intimidated in front of colleagues and . . . having their professional credibility and integrity minimized or questioned.”
Martin has worked for the federal government for 32 years and has been at Yosemite since July 2006. She previously worked at Grand Canyon National Park and with the Forest Service at the Carson Ranger District on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains, among other places.
Nationwide, women make up about 37 percent of the park service’s workforce. In wildland firefighting, the percentage of women in public lands agencies is even lower.
At Yosemite, Martin cited several troublesome incidents that included her work on the park’s complex fire-management plan being “discounted and discredited,” as well as her being supplanted as the leader of the park’s response to the 2013 Rim Fire.
One investigation, called an “expedited inquiry,” had been initiated by the park service in August to determine whether a hostile work environment or harassment pervaded Yosemite. Such inquiries can lead to formal Equal Employment Opportunity complaints.
“Some employees chose not to come forward for fear of retaliation,” Martin reported.
Still, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, the chairman of the House oversight committee, disclosed that at least 18 Yosemite employees had complained about working conditions at the park, and he cited one investigator’s characterization of the Yosemite work environment as “horrific.”
The initial inquiry prompted the follow-up investigation by the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General, though Martin voiced a concern that it “may not be the appropriate body to handle the sensitivity and nuances of a hostile work environment complaint.”
In his email, Neubacher said he’d learned “over the last few weeks” about the staff concerns.
“Until recently, I wasn’t aware of these concerns and I am deeply saddened by this,” he wrote.
Neubacher declined further comment Monday.
Prior to joining Yosemite, Neubacher was superintendent for 15 years at Point Reyes National Seashore. His leadership there incited controversy over his objections to a local oyster farm, prompting earlier investigations by House committees and others.
The deputy superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park, another park whose whose management came under fire at the hearing last week, announced her retirement Monday. The park’s previous superintendent retired in May, as allegations surfaced about sexual harassment complaints being mishandled.