Former National Park Advisers Swing Back At Interior Department's 'Slanderous' Claims

A spokeswoman for Secretary Ryan Zinke accused the volunteer body of turning a blind eye on sexual harassment — without providing any evidence.

WASHINGTON — Outgoing advisers of the National Park Service who stepped down this week over frustrations with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke are swinging back at what they called “degrading,” “slanderous” and dishonest assertions from a department official.

In a strongly worded statement Wednesday, Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift celebrated the resignation of nearly the entire National Park Service Advisory Board, accusing them among other things of allowing a culture of sexual harassment to fester at national parks.

“We welcome their resignations and would expect nothing less than quitting from members who found it convenient to turn a blind eye to women being sexually harassed at National Parks,” Swift told the Washington Examiner and several other media outlets. The spokeswoman also dismissed as “patently false” the advisers’ claims that the department had refused to engage with them over the last year, as The Washington Post first reported.

Departing board Chairman Tony Knowles told the Post that the panel had been “frozen out” by Zinke and was not consulted on key NPS decisions, including hiking visitor fees at several national parks. Only two of the board’s 12 members remain.

Established in 1935, this body of unpaid volunteers advises the Interior Department and the director of the NPS on a wide range of matters and policies at the organization, from the designation of historic and natural landmarks to addressing climate change. However, they are not employees of the National Park Service, let alone managers. And they played no role in determining how the agency should address the sexual harassment and assault issues that have made national headlines in recent years, two board members who quit this week told HuffPost on Thursday.

“I read the L.A. Times. Of course I was aware of it,” Belinda Faustinos, a former board member from California, said of the allegations. “But was that my job as an advisory board member? No.”

Faustinos, who in 2011 retired as executive officer of the San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy, said Swift’s condemnation only confirmed that she and her colleagues made the right decision to leave. The actions taken by Zinke’s team over the last year are not consistent with the values of the park service or the board, she said.

“This administration tends to double down whenever they get challenged on anything, and that’s exactly what happened,” she told HuffPost. “I’m not shocked or surprised. I’m disappointed. I am beyond belief that we’re actually in this situation.”

In October, the Interior Department released the results of an NPS survey that found 38.7 percent of its employees had experienced some form of harassment or discrimination over a one-year period. Just over 10 percent reported being sexually harassed.

Zinke has promised to crack down on a problem that he blamed on his predecessors.

All employees have the right to work in an environment that is safe and harassment-free,” he said in an October statement. “I’ve removed a number of people who were abusive or acted improperly that other administrations were too afraid to or just turned a blind eye to.”

Gretchen Long, a board member from Wyoming who also quit this week, echoed Faustinos. Sexual harassment, she said, is a management issue that the board never discussed, in part because of privacy laws. And while a general misunderstanding about the advisory board’s responsibilities may have factored into Swift’s response, both women suspect the agency acted maliciously.

“They politicized the good work of citizen volunteers who represent both a broad political spectrum and a broad background and expertise,” Long said.

Long added that she was “shocked” to see the Interior Department put out such a “slanderous” statement. “I think that the degrading style of the response and the dishonesty of the response is quite unsettling just from a point of view of an American citizen,” she said.

Faustinos called it a “tactical” move that is being used by people throughout the administration.

“That seems to be something that I see happening a lot,” she told HuffPost. “Untruths. Not knowing what they’re talking about, and trying to turn the messaging around to make it a counterattack.”

Faustinos and Long also disputed Swift’s claim that as recently as this month and before the board member resignations, the agency was “working with the board to renew their charter, schedule a meeting and fill vacancies.”

“It just never happened,” Long said.

In her statement, Swift also dismissed the reported resignation of two members whose terms expired back in July as a “hollow and dishonest political stunt.” And she said the department would “fast-track filling these new vacancies with people who are actually dedicated to working with the department to better our national parks.”

Long and Faustinos stressed the importance of the advisory board and said they are extremely proud of the work they did during their terms to improve the park service. And while they expected that the Trump administration would move in its own direction and appoint new members, they hoped for an opportunity to sit down with Zinke to discuss initiatives that the board championed over the last several years.

Faustinos said Interior’s aggressive and inaccurate statement Wednesday is just another attempt to distract from the real issue: “That the people of this great country are just being blindsided by all these ridiculous policies that are coming out, from fee hikes [at national parks] to drilling in the Arctic.”

“The truth doesn’t seem to matter [to them],” she said.

The Interior Department did not respond to HuffPost’s email Thursday seeking clarification on how it believes the advisory board failed to take action on sexual harassment.

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