Fighting to fight: the women of the U.S. Forest Service continue a decades old battle against toxic masculinity

On the heels of the deadliest wildfire in California history and a #MeToo movement that continues to blaze through California and the nation, there is another battle that has been waged for decades, a battle that continues for the brave female United States Forestry Department firefighters and industry workers. These women are put in harm’s way not only because of the nature of the work they love, but because of a culture entrenched with toxic masculinity that has likely existed since the department’s inception. Decades of whistleblowers have reported gender discrimination, unwanted sexual advances, repugnant verbal harassment, mafia-like intimidation, unchecked retaliation and even rape in a number of complaints and lawsuits.

The department’s dysfunction was brought to the public eye in 1972 because of a discrimination charge made by female sociologist, Gene C. Bernaldi. The case, which evolved into a class action lawsuit, led to the 1979 decree demanding that the Forest Service increase opportunities for women. What looked like a win, instead, became a catalyst for contention. While more women were hired, according to Lesa Donnelly, Vice President of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees and former USFS employee, it only exacerbated the dysfunction and the mentality that women were hired out of compliance versus merit.

Fast forward to present day and the number of women working for the USFS has changed but the culture hasn’t. By all appearances, the heat has turned up at the U.S. Forest Service in the last two years with two federal oversight hearings, numerous pending lawsuits, thousands of complaints and a very public scandal involving the resignation and replacement of accused sexual harasser, Chief Tony Tooke. But rather than improving accountability, according to Donnelly, the reality is that the problems facing women at the USFS have gotten much worse. The Congressional hearings, improvement plans and the installation of a new female chief, Vicki Christiansen, have done little. “Instead of improving conditions for women, they are doubling down.” Shannon Reed, a former research scientist for USFS, who says she was fired in retaliation for reporting incidents of sexual and verbal harassment, agrees wholeheartedly, “It is getting worse.” And the issue? “It’s an old boys club, and they are in strategic places!”

Denice Rice former USFS firefighter, testified in front of the 2016 oversight committee that not only are their situations and reports brushed aside, but the agency works hard to protect the perpetrators. In her testimony she shared the evidence, “While he was under investigation he continued to supervise women, he was allowed… …to promote his career, and was allowed to be acting District Ranger. The message was that he had done nothing wrong, and I was the problem. I kept hearing that he was entitled to due process, but it went beyond that.” She was forced to sit in a meeting with her colleagues while the District Ranger discussed what had happened to her. “I was on display. I felt degraded and was humiliated… Women who report sexual harassment are retaliated against. It is your word against his ,and you know the moment you open your mouth to speak up you are committing career suicide. Management removed all of my supervisory responsibilities, moved me from my location, and isolated me.” The same was true for Reed. “I was fired as reprisal for refusing to have a personal relationship…, for reporting two years of harassment and abuse, for filing EEO complaints, and for testifying against (former) Chief Tooke’s sexual misconduct.”

Chief Vicki Christiansen, in her testimony on November 2018 to the Congressional oversight committee, defended new policies that have been instituted to fix the culture. “In the past year, we have established a call center staffed by outside personnel who are trained to handle calls of a sensitive nature and route them appropriately.” Donnelly, Reed and others think the policies are band-aids, “The H.R.C. (Harassment Reporting Center) process has to go.” They argue that the system fails to do anything but harm the individuals who use it. Reed sees it working against victims. “It is a way the forest service uses to reduce the number of EO complaints. It’s a way to identify the victims. They don’t even call them victims, they call them targets and fire them. Get rid of the squeaky wheel instead getting rid of the problem.” In the same hearing, Christiansen didn’t deny the fact that the Forestry Service still had a long way to go, “We are aware that we must do more to stop harassment, bullying and retaliation.”

Even though Donnelly expressed frustration in her 2016 testimony, “we have been reporting egregious incidents of sexual harassment, work place violence, discrimination, and reprisal… since 2009 to no avail,” she stated in a recent phone interview that she is hopeful and continues to work hard for change. “We want congressional oversight on everything we do because we can’t trust the forest service. They want to put a happy face on it… …just so they look good. They aren’t putting effort into actually making a change.” Donnelly and her team are in the process of creating a concrete plan requested by Congress to aide effective change within the agency. “It’s not surface level, like training. I started in 1978, and they were doing the same kinds of training then, if people aren’t getting it by now, that kind of training is not the answer. What we are really trying to do is get at the heart of the matter so that HR can no longer use procedures against women and minorities…”

Reed is also looking for that and more, “I want everyone to know that there are some great people who work for the forest service and there are some really bad people, and those bad people need to go. Don’t get rid of the good ones like me and other women who stood up…” Reed and others would like to see an end to the irony of the accused going quietly into the night while many of the victims end up jobless and penniless. “It doesn’t sit well at all that the men get to retire with full benefits, and the women, like in my case, get fired. I have no money… I’m going to have to put my house on the market and probably live in my car. While Tony Tooke gets more in his retirement than I got when I was getting paid.” Reed also added that after all this is done, “I do hope through the EO process that I will get reinstated.”

Forestry service dates back to 1876. While many of its leaders and workers are in the wilderness, it doesn’t excuse the archaic and misogynistic culture. Fortunately, change is in the air, but it also has many questioning whether their sacrifice is worth it. Women like Rice and Reed, along with hundreds of other USFS workers who have become whistleblowers not after the first incident of harassment, not after the tenth, but when it was their only step forward, should be admired and exalted. Their attempts to improve the culture for other women, especially those who bleed green, is admirable especially when their sacrifice to date, has been insurmountable.