‘Unfounded’ Bullying Accusations Sidelined Head Of Grand Canyon For 5 Months

March 5, 2019

The details on the lengthy federal investigation that exonerated the embattled head of Grand Canyon National Park of creating a hostile work environment were released Tuesday.

Park Superintendent Christine Lehnertz was cleared in February of any wrongdoing following allegations she bullied and retaliated against some male leaders at the park and misspent funds, according to a report from the Interior Department’s inspector general.

The findings come almost five months after Lehnertz was hastily reassigned from her post running one of the country’s most popular national parks.

“We found no evidence that Lehnertz created a hostile work environment,” the report said. “Most of the employees [interviewed] indicated that Lehnertz was generally liked at the park and reported that Lehnertz did not treat men or women differently and held everyone to the same standard.”

Grand Canyon’s history of harassment

This isn’t the first time that an official at Grand Canyon National Park has been dogged by allegations of harassment. In 2014, more than a dozen female park rangers wrote a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell describing a long-term pattern of sexual harassment and workplace hostility in the park’s River District. A federal investigation later found a total of 35 employees who had witnessed or experienced harassment and hostility there. The scandal made national headlines, led to a congressional hearing and eventually the ouster of then-Superintendent Dave Uberuaga.

Lehnertz took over the park in a push to improve morale and establish stability and decorum.

During a 2016 interview shortly after she was hired, Lehnertz told the public radio collaborative Fronteras Desk that in order to clean up house there, she needed to set expectations.

“A leader has to be very clear, at the outset, so there’s just no question in anyone’s mind that there are rewards for those behaviors that are positive and consequences for those that are negative,” she said.

Current and former National Park Service employees said Lehnertz was different from previous managers at the park. She really listened.

“When you speak with her, you feel like you’ve known her forever and she’s your best friend,” said Martha Hahn, the former science and resource management division chief at Grand Canyon National Park. “I mean that’s that’s how comfortable she makes you feel.”

That listening, Hahn said, translated into action. Lehnertz helped force out some employees and created a team tasked with understanding and stopping the cycles of abuse and discrimination at the park. Hahn said Lehnertz did more than address the park’s long-term history of sexual harassment and abuse.

“She’s also very serious about everyone pulling their load,” she said. “And I think that was the part that bothered some people who had spent a lot of time in their career not being pushed like that.”

Leadership style

It was widely known that a handful of managers didn’t appreciate Lehnertz’s leadership style. John Dillon, executive director of the Grand Canyon River Outfitters Association, said he heard the complaints firsthand from Park Service supervisors who clashed with her.

“I do know a handful of people in the park that have have felt very frustrated with the new superintendent’s style,” he said.

Dillon represents river rafting companies that contract with the National Park Service. He works with employees there and said a few managers felt as if they were walking on eggshells after Lehnertz became superintendent.

“I think the concern is, ‘I have another 10 years and I don’t want to say something or do something wrong or end up in the crosshairs of somebody who is on a mission to clean house,’ ” he said.

It’s unclear whether that atmosphere led a senior official at the park to file the hostile work environment claim that launched the months-long investigation into Lehnertz. It was spurred after she proposed suspending the employee for not providing important reports and for missing a meeting, according to the Inspector General report. Lehnertz was also accused of bullying male leaders at the park.

However, the Inspector General report said the one-day suspension was warranted and the accusations “unfounded.”

Lingering questions

The federal investigation was launched in October. Soon after, the National Park Service removed Lehnertz from her post and reassigned her to an unspecified position at regional headquarters in Denver.

In an October 2018 email to employees obtained by E&E News, Acting Regional Director Kate Hammond said Lehnertz was reassigned “to protect the integrity of the OIG’s investigation into these allegations.”

Jon Jarvis, director of the National Park Service during the Obama administration, said that removing a park superintendent like this is rare and that he believes, in this case, the agency overreacted. He hired Lehnertz for the job running Grand Canyon in 2016.

“I know Chris very well,” he said. “She volunteered to go to Grand Canyon to take on the issues there with sexual harassment. So I would’ve thought this seemed a little odd to me that a subordinate was claiming harassment by Chris Lehnertz. I would’ve wanted to better understand the situation before I tried to move her out of her job.”

The National Park Service did not make Chris Lehnertz available for an interview. But in an emailed statement, an agency spokesperson said she’s “a talented and dedicated executive of the National Park Service and her commitment to building a respectful and inclusive workplace is sincere, broadly demonstrated and widely respected.”

The agency also said it wouldn’t comment on personnel actions, the investigation or when Lehnertz would return to Grand Canyon.

The park turned 100 years old last week, and Lehnertz wasn’t there to celebrate.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration among Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Copyright 2019 KUER 90.1. To see more, visit KUER 90.1.