SAN FRANCISCO -- Photos of scantily clad women found plastered on the inside of a firefighter crew carrier near Santa Barbara are the centerpiece of a USDA Forest Service sexual harassment controversy.
Women at the Forest Service say the photos are just the latest example of a longstanding culture where supervisors systematically ignore discrimination and harassment complaints and penalize those who file such complaints.
The photos, torn from magazines, depict women bent over with legs spread and in various states of undress. Complaints about the photos were filed anonymously in September after being discovered in a "crew buggy" in the 1.7 million-acre Los Padres National Forest near Santa Barbara.
Elite firefighters, called hotshot crews, travel through the forest in these metal vehicles for weeks at a time. The Los Padres hotshot crew consists of 19 men and one woman. Complaints about the photos did not come from crew members.
"The Forest Service is very concerned about this," says Dave Reider, spokesman for the USDA Forest Service Pacific Southwest Region Five, encompassing all of California. Reider says the department is conducting an independent investigation into the photo montage and is requiring employees to attend "stand down" training, where employees simultaneously put down their work for at least an hour to attend a session on sexual harassment.
Workers Charge Continued Harassment Despite Lawsuits, Complaints
Some current and former female employees say that despite repeated lawsuits and official complaints, sexual harassment in the service remains rampant. Lesa Donnelly, who worked for the Forest Service for 14 years, was lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against her former employer after suffering what she describes as years of sexual harassment and discrimination.
Donnelly says she was denied promotions because of her gender and was repeatedly harassed by male workers. When she was out in the field, one of her colleagues told her that he and other male co-workers had "a bet to see what color your underwear is," Donnelly says. The final straw, she says, was being called "a bitch" by her supervisor.
"There are gray areas in sexual harassment, but what women in the Forest Service are experiencing are not gray areas," Donnelly says. "Something as blatant as plastering pictures of mostly naked women in a public space is not a gray area."
Under settlement terms of the Donnelly lawsuit, reached in 2000, the California region of the Forest Service must provide mandatory sensitivity training to all employees and investigate all complaints. Donnelly has filed a contempt motion on the settlement agreement.
"What is happening in California is just a microcosm of the abuses that are happening around the country at the U.S. Forest Service," says Lawrence Lucas, president of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Coalition of Minority Employees, which is spearheading complaints by women and minorities against the Forest Service.
Reider says that mandatory sexual harassment training required by the settlements of the lawsuit have already taken place. "We take these things very seriously," he says.
California Forest Service Region Has Highest Number of Complaints
Today, more than 190 discrimination and sexual harassment complaints against the California region are under investigation, more than any other Forest Service region. African American and Asian American workers have filed class-action discrimination lawsuits saying that they have been denied promotions because of race. Despite the high number of these claims, the USDA, which manages the Forest Service, has experienced fewer discrimination and sexual harassment complaints than other federal agencies such as the U.S. Postal Service and the Departments of Treasury and Defense, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Women working in region five say that sexual harassment hurts not just women in the field, but also the public. Janine McFarland, an archeologist leading preservation efforts of ancient Native American rock art at Los Padres, has filed 15 complaints against the Forest Service. McFarland says that in addition to being sexually harassed, she has been run off the road and threatened with violence by male Forest Service employees.
McFarland contends that male employees have made lewd sexual and racist comments to her female Native American volunteers working to preserve the rock art. As a result of such intimidation, she says she has lost 70 percent of her volunteers and the art is being vandalized because of lack of supervision. McFarland was temporarily reassigned to a three-month detail at the Bureau of Land Management; she says the reassignment was punishment for filing complaints.
"This kind of behavior is not supposed to be continuing because of the lawsuit settlement, but it is," McFarland says. "Now ancient relics have been ruined, depriving the public of valuable historical resources."
The Forest Service would not comment on the McFarland complaints.
Donnelly says that the public should take notice.
"The Forest Service does things to retaliate against employees who complain about discrimination and harassment, but these retaliations are actually hurting the public," Donnelly says. "That's resources that are being degraded and that's taxpayer dollars that are being wasted."
Rebecca Vesely is the West Coast bureau chief of Women's Enews.