Grand Canyon to have new leader following harassment report

AP News
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Posted: May 17, 2016 8:12 PM
Grand Canyon to have new leader following harassment report

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — The superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park has chosen retirement over a transfer after being told the park needed new leadership to address a longstanding pattern of sexual harassment and hostile work environments.

Dave Uberuaga was not implicated in any of the allegations of sexual misconduct in the park's river district, but federal investigators accused him of failing to properly look into and report them. Uberuaga told employees Tuesday that he declined an offer from National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis to transfer to Washington, D.C. Instead, he's retiring, effective June 1.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Uberuaga said he took the report by the Interior Department's Office of Inspector General seriously and had begun implementing change, including banning alcohol on agency river trips and later abolishing the river district. He said he was focused on creating an environment where employees could freely voice their concerns without fear of retaliation.

"I would have liked to been the one to try to move us through this situation," Uberuaga said. "Yet there is this pressure for change, which is very real. There is a pressure that a new management perspective can come in and bring new information, new skillsets and actually can improve the situation."

It's unclear who will succeed Uberuaga, who worked with the Park Service for more than three decades.

Park Service spokesman Jeremy Barnum said new leadership will ensure that park employees are safe and respected while the agency assesses whether similar situations have occurred elsewhere.

The federal report found that male employees of Grand Canyon preyed on female colleagues during what could be weekslong trips on the Colorado River. The men demanded sex and retaliated against women who refused, investigators found.

Uberuaga and his deputy, Diane Chalfant, told investigators they were well aware of the history of alleged sexual harassment on the river, if not all the details, and tried to change the culture.

Among the reforms proposed by the Park Service's Intermountain Region director was disciplinary action against Uberuaga and Chalfant by May 1. Those actions were not going to be made public.

Uberuaga was named Grand Canyon superintendent in July 2011 after overseeing Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state. During his tenure at Grand Canyon, the park struggled with a backlog of maintenance, briefly shut down during a federal budget impasse, raised park entrance fees and fought an effort by a longtime concessionaire to trademark popular names at the park.

The Grand Canyon also had its busiest year ever in 2015 with more than 5.3 million visitors. The park could surpass that number this year as the agency celebrates its centennial.

Uberuaga said he's most proud of the relationships he has built with American Indian tribes and helping to connect elders and youth to traditional places and sources of emergence. "There's no better place to live and work, and I felt really privileged to be here," he said.

Wally Rist, president of the Grand Canyon Private Boaters Association, said Uberuaga was receptive to the river community and he's sad to see him go. "I don't think any of us know the real details as to warrant a real opinion on whether he's negligent in his duties or guilty of something," he said.

Warren Musselman, another private boater, said the National Park Service didn't respond as strongly to the reports on sexual harassment as it should have. The Park Service is trying to save face with Uberuaga's retirement and promote change with new leadership, he said.

"It's a token symbol of NPS trying to do the right thing," he said.