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After 'Failure in Leadership,' New Grand Canyon Superintendent Part Of Culture Change

Christine Lehnertz is the first woman to take on the role of Grand Canyon National Park superintendent.
Courtesy of the National Park Service.
Christine Lehnertz is the first woman to take on the role of Grand Canyon National Park superintendent.

Grand Canyon National Park is trying to move past a scathing sexual misconduct reportreleased in January by the Inspector General’s Office.

In attempts to change the culture of harassment the National Park Service is investigating just how extensive complaints of sexual harassment have been at national parks, is setting up a confidential hotline and for the first time, is appointing a woman to oversee the park.

U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and three of the highest level park service officials in the country stepped out of a black SUV at the rim of the Grand Canyon on a recent July day. They took in the iconic view for a few seconds before turning around to face a group of reporters who wanted to talk about the ugly events that took place on the river miles below.

According to the Office of Inspector General, male river district employees preyed on their female co-workers for years demanding sex and punishing those who refused.

“That’s unacceptable behavior,” Jewell said. “It is a failure in leadership. It’s something we have got to address. But I will say that this is a team of employees that wants to move on that does not want to be defined by the actions of a few.”

Jewell said she’s just come out of a meeting with 300 of the park’s staff. She told them how the department is responding to the sexual harassment report. Jewell called the victims’ stories “horrific.” According to the OIG, higher level officials allowed the hostile culture to fester.

In the wake of the report, former superintendent Dave Uberuaga chose to retire after the agency offered him a job in Washington. Some said other leaders at the park should take the blame before him.

A 'reset button' for Grand Canyon National Park

Now, park service officials want to to discuss how the agency will move forward.

“Frankly it’s going to press a reset button on Grand Canyon National Park, where this is going to be one of the best places to work in the future,” Jewell said.

Part of that reset is bringing in a new superintendent — Christine Lehnertz.

“Grand Canyon is a place that will lead the NPS through making sure our organization and this park are inclusive, respectful and embrace diversity,” Lehnertz said.

Lehnertz is the first woman the park has had in this role. Regional Director Sue Masica hired her.

“My focus was on what is the right set of skills that are needed at the Grand Canyon at this moment in time — right place, right person, right time,” Masica said. “And Chris is known as a collaborator. She’s known as very caring and attentive to people. I needed a leader who would come in and set the tone in terms of moving forward, healing this park.”

In her email to Grand Canyon employees Lehnertz said her “highest priority is, and will always be, employee safety.” She said it’s about setting expectations.

“We will not tolerate things like sexism, sexual harassment, sexual assault, racism,” Lehnertz said. “All of those things and the leader has to be very clear at the outset. So there’s just no question in anyone’s mind that there are rewards for behaviors that are positive and consequences for those that are negative.”

New superintendent promises collaborative leadership

Lehnertz worked for 16 years with the Environmental Protection Agency as a biologist before her first job in the National Park Service almost a decade ago.

She served as deputy superintendent at Yellowstone, then regional director for the Pacific West and for the last year superintendent at Golden Gate National Recreation Area. She was the first woman to serve in all those roles with the park service. It’s no coincidence the agency hired a woman now.

“We know there are differences between genders,” Lehnertz said. “We can’t pretend there aren’t. I think the most important thing is that leadership has to be collaborative. And leadership doesn’t just come from the superintendent. There’s no model that works in our world that’s hero based. It’s not about me coming in.”

The Grand Canyon isn’t the only national park dealing with sexual misconduct. The OIG is also investigating claims of sexual harassment at Cape Canaveral National Seashore.

Laurel Morales was a Fronteras Desk reporter in Flagstaff from 2011 to 2020.