More than two months after the U.S. Department of Interior released a disturbing report confirming a history of sexual harassment among river guides employed by the National Park Service in the Grand Canyon, superintendent David Uberuaga announced that he was dissolving the entire department, known as the River District.
Grand Canyon National Park’s River District was a Federal body responsible for managing the park’s river trips along the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. The River District ran about a dozen trips per year for various purposes including scientific research and shoreline and trail maintenance. Trip participants often came from other units in the park, such as the National Park Service’s Vegetation Inventory Program as well as volunteer organizations, commercial contractors, and educational programs. The River District also had law enforcement and emergency-services jurisdiction over the Colorado River Corridor of Grand Canyon National Park. The river guiding responsibilities will now be contracted out.
The report surfaced 15 years of a river culture gone awry, creating, according to the report, “a sexually hostile work environment.” James Doyle, spokesman for the Park Service, told High Country News that Uberuaga dissolved the river district to have a fresh start and review of its mission and responsibilities.
Under Uberuaga’s new structure, Grand Canyon National Park will continue to patrol the canyon, just not through the now-defunct river district. The river community’s response has been mixed, praising Uberuaga for owning up to the issue and taking swift action, while simultaneously criticizing him for keeping all six former employees of the river district, including one of the four men accused of sexual harassment in the report, working for Grand Canyon National Park.
“I truly appreciate Superintendent Uberuaga not only acknowledging but taking responsibility for tolerating the culture of sexual harassment in the river district,” says Bridget Crocker, a second-generation guide who spent 17 years on the river and wrote for Men’s Journal about the discrimination she witnessed as a guide. “But I’m puzzled over how allowing perpetrators to continue working in the organization doesn’t perpetuate the culture of fear, retaliation, and silence that sexual harassment environments thrive on.”
Having guided for commercial outfitters, where she was repeatedly harassed, Crocker is also wary of the NPS’s decision to contract out river guiding in the Grand Canyon to commercial operators. “It completely dodges addressing the systemic, deep-seated problem of sexual harassment in the river industry,” she says. “And it’s a complete crapshoot. You’re putting blind faith in the commercial sector to handle the problem, which, frankly, could result in a similar, if not worse, situation.”
Meanwhile Arizona resident Nikki Cooley, a river-guiding veteran and former president of the Grand Canyon River Guides Association, is guardedly hopeful. “That shit (excuse my language) has been going on for far too long. Finally, its nationwide news and we’re seeing action. This could be the start of real change.”