Grand Canyon Superintendent Announces Resignation

7 Mar

UpdateGrand Canyon National Park superintendent Christine Lehnertz will resign, effective March 31. Lehnertz announced her decision in an email to all Grand Canyon staff on Thursday, March 14. In the message she thanked employees and praised the work that’s been done toward the goal of changing the park’s culture of bullying and harassment.

In the message Lehnertz also told employees to “be proud of the substantial progress that you have made toward building a more respectful and inclusive workplace,” pointing to specific gains made there since 2016 in a Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey conducted last year. “These gains are directly attributable to those of you who have chosen to stand up to make a better workplace at Grand Canyon National Park,” she said.  

In February, the Park Service announced that Lehnertz had been cleared to return to her post following the conclusion of an Interior Department investigation that found allegations made against her in October 2018 to be “wholly unfounded.” However, she did not return to the park after the investigation. Lehnertz’s attorney told Outside in a March 6 story that her return was delayed while they sought “assurances that she will have protection if these kinds of malicious accusations are filed against her again by subordinates.” Outside’s original story from March 6 follows.

When Christine Lehnertz took the job of Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent in the fall of 2016, she was optimistic about her ability to change the park’s notorious culture of bullying and harassment. At the bottom of her emails and emblazoned on every park document, she proclaimed a new motto: “Grand Canyon’s priority is to create a respectful and inclusive workplace where employees can be safe, feel secure and find support.”

But two years later, in October 2018, Lehnertz was temporarily reassigned from her office when the Department of Interior's Office of Inspector General opened an investigation into unspecified allegations against her. In February, National Park Service Deputy director Daniel Smith announced the investigation, which had taken four months, was over. “The allegations were wholly unfounded,” he said, adding that her “commitment to building a respectful and inclusive workplace is sincere, broadly demonstrated, and widely respected.” National Park Service officials expected she would promptly return to duty.

Not so fast, says Lehnertz’s lawyer. “Chris cannot go back to the park right now because she is not safe there,” says Denver-based attorney Kevin Evans. “We need assurances that she will have protection if these kinds of malicious accusations are filed against her again by subordinates.” Evans said he and Lehnertz are currently negotiating the terms of her return with the Department of Interior.

Lehnertz found out about the surprise investigation on the same day that her mother died. When I reached her at the time, rather than having the space to grieve her mother’s sudden passing, she was frantically trying to clear out her office and sort through how to defend herself against the unknown charges. No details had been given about the nature of the alleged wrongdoing or who filed the grievances, and Lehnertz could not speculate about the investigation at the time or discuss it while it was ongoing.  

It was not until March 4 that the OIG released its report. According to the report, among the unfounded complaints filed by a “senior official” at the park was that Lehnertz “created a hostile work environment and engaged in bullying behavior against senior leaders, particularly male leaders.”

The complaints made by this senior-level manager included allegations of being wrongly given a one-day suspension and other unfair treatment by Lehnertz. However, rather than providing damning details against the superintendent, most of the report documents infractions made by the accuser himself. The investigation found that the senior-level manager did not submit required employee evaluations, nor did he oversee a “high-priority park initiative,” as directed by Lehnertz. He also, the report states, lied to his boss about it. The report notes that the accuser told Lehnertz he did not follow up on what she asked him to do because he “didn’t think [the park] needed it.” He also told investigators that he didn’t submit an evaluation on one of his subordinates because he believed Lehnertz would “use it as a weapon” to fire that person.

Lehnertz is Grand Canyon’s first female superintendent and the first openly gay person to head up the park. Before Grand Canyon, she was the superintendent of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, director of the Park Service’s Pacific Northwest Region, and deputy superintendent at Yellowstone National Park. For each of these positions, she was the first woman to hold the job.

grand canyon
Lehnertz is Grand Canyon’s first female superintendent and the first openly gay person to head up the park. (Michael Quinn/NPS via AP)

Lehnertz was brought to one of the nation’s largest parks to mop up the mess left by a scandal in the Grand Canyon’s River District that was detailed in a 2016 OIG report. It documented more than a decade of brazen behavior by boatmen who felt entitled to pursue sexual favors from female coworkers and retaliate against them when they did not comply. The report also laid out how River District supervisors failed to protect those reporting the harms.

When Lehnertz took over, she said she found a workforce of 500-plus employees devastated by the fallout from the River District scandal and traumatized by decades of “bullying, harassment and hostility in all corners of the park.” She implemented a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment and began training managers in trauma-informed workplace practices. But not everyone wanted to change.

“There are plenty of men in high positions in the park who hate her,” said one female ranger who has worked at Grand Canyon for more than a decade. “She just wants them to do their jobs and stop fooling around. They don’t like being told to get their hands out of the cookie jar.”

The OIG report exonerating Lehnertz noted that investigators had interviewed 20 park employees of all ranks and that only one had complained about the superintendent’s management style. None stated that Lehnertz treated men and women differently and all said, according to the report, that she “held everyone to the same standard.” However, the report also noted that managers described Lehnertz’s tendency to “drill down” in an attempt to get increasingly detailed information from them about their programs. This intense oversight has been especially pronounced for employees who do scientific research on the river.

"The recently released OIG report, while clearing the Superintendent of wrongdoing, shows just how dysfunctional park leadership has been," said one current park employee. "Decisions aren't made for months, if at all, communication to employees is lacking on critical issues. There seems to be widespread fear, which is not healthy. The park really needs a clean slate with new leadership." 

Now, Lehnertz finds herself personally embroiled in the cycle of trauma at Grand Canyon. “Chris’ rights have been completely trampled on,” says Evans, her attorney. “Sure, she has been cleared, but the damage to her career can’t be taken back. They never should have removed her from the park because those allegations could have been promptly dismissed.” Evans hopes a resolution allowing Lehnertz’s return to Grand Canyon can be reached within the next week.

Meanwhile, as Grand Canyon reflects on its 100-year anniversary, the tension remains. “If Chris was a man this never would have happened,” said the female ranger of the March 2019 OIG investigation. “I agree she is not safe here. No female superintendent will ever be safe here.”

300 Flights Through the Grand Canyon’s Helicopter Alley

24 May

Western Grand Canyon is an unforgiving, feral landscape. There are no trails, and water is dangerously scarce. It is filled with uncharted slot canyons, flesh-seeking cactus, perilous drop-offs and expansive views. For Rich Rudow, an obsessive cross-country explorer, this part of Grand Canyon National Park would be paradise if it weren’t for the steady drone overhead. He says sometimes the mechanical hum heard from the canyon rim is as faint as a bumblebee. But closer to the river, the loud noise can approach a rock-concert decibel level and drive a wilderness-loving hiker or river runner mad.

On average, there are more than 300 helicopter landings each day at the airport at Grand Canyon West, as the area is called, and along a three-mile stretch of the Colorado River on the Hualapai Reservation bordering the national park. Hikers and river runners passing through the area describe a “war zone,” with one helicopter landing about every five minutes for eight hours straight.

Rudow recalls a “magical moment” during a trip in October 2016 when the noise stopped and he got a taste of what the place was like before the chopper frenzy. After a long day of hiking, Rudow and two others were about to set up camp on the Sanup Plateau, located on the canyon’s North Rim across from the helicopter landing pads. A gray ceiling of clouds suddenly parted and the sun broke through, casting the plateau’s prairie grasses and cholla in an ethereal golden light. “It was dusk, so the helicopters were finally gone for the day,” Rudow says. “And all the birds and insects started singing at once. It was a massive symphony of sound, an incredible uprising of life that we did not know was there because of the constant noise.”

The nonstop daytime air traffic is part of a booming tourism enterprise that has lifted a struggling 2,400-person Native American tribe out of poverty. In the process, however, national park wilderness advocates like Rudow argue the helicopter-driven business is destroying the most precious part of an irreplaceable crown jewel.

But who is intruding on whom is a matter of heated debate.

Hualapai tribal chairperson Damon Clarke has little patience for critics like Rudow. “If we listened to everyone about the impacts of Grand Canyon West, then we would remain undeveloped. We would be kept down,” Clarke says. “We are finally able to make a living, and people are poking fun at us.”

As an indigenous tribe of Grand Canyon, the Hualapai once called an area of approximately 5 million acres home. They hunted and farmed across a large swath of plateau lands in northern Arizona, as well as on the South and West Rims of Grand Canyon. The Colorado River is the tribe’s spiritual touchstone, what they call their ha’yidada, or backbone. In 1883, the Hualapai were forced onto a 1 million–acre reservation, which the U.S. government did not mind signing over because it lacked lucrative natural resources like minerals, timber, or water. But it did include 100 miles of front-row seating to Grand Canyon’s western rim, with stunning views of the Colorado River 4,000 feet below.

When the Hualapai established Grand Canyon West in 1988, the destination was just a bladed-dirt airstrip with a road that led to the West Rim overlook of Guano Point. For anyone with the guts to land there, tribal members would pick them up and take them to the point where they shared stories and ate lunch. In the 1990s, the then-1,500-member tribe had an unemployment rate hovering around 60 percent. Tourism was their best hope for economic development on a reservation so remote that it was 50 miles from the nearest grocery store. To help the tribe with its nascent business, the Federal Aviation Administration paved the runway in 1997 and made other improvements to the airport. Papillon, one of the largest air tour companies in the country, established a base as soon as the asphalt was dry, and other companies quickly followed.

Meanwhile, the 1987 National Park Overflights Act was in the process of being implemented in Grand Canyon National Park. After a midair collision over Grand Canyon the previous year, the new law was intended to improve safety regulations and also mandated “substantial restoration of natural quiet” in the national park. Once regulations were complete, air tours would be restricted to a limited number of flights and paths over the park and required to stay thousands of feet above the canyon rim.

In addition to being a sovereign nation with the freedom to do whatever it wanted on reservation land, another thing that worked in the tribe’s favor was a decision made in April 2000 called the “Hualapai exception.” As the National Park Service and the FAA developed flight rules for the Grand Canyon region, the Hualapai argued that restricting flights at Grand Canyon West would pose an economic hardship to the tribe. At the time, more than one-third of households on the reservation lived below the poverty level. The temporary exception granted by the FAA allowed an unlimited number of helicopter flights at Grand Canyon West. And as Papillon and other air tour companies would soon discover, there was an ever-increasing demand for faster, more exciting ways to see Grand Canyon.

“What put Grand Canyon West on the map was that the Hualapai had the foresight to realize they were across from the national park and could allow helicopters to land near the boundary,” says Robert Graff, vice president of marketing for Papillon. “At the West Rim, you can descend 3,500 feet and land right on the banks of the Colorado River.”

The open season for air tours dovetailed nicely with the completion in 2007 of the glass cantilever Skywalk bridge that juts 70 feet over the West Rim’s Eagle Point. The bridge itself was controversial for how it used Grand Canyon as the site of a thrill-seeking experience more commonly associated with amusement parks.

With the Skywalk as its anchor attraction, Grand Canyon West has rapidly expanded its tourist offerings over the past decade. There is now a restaurant and visitor center next to the Skywalk, along with a western-themed town and guest cabins, guided whitewater rafting and a zip line strung over a side canyon. But the biggest draws after the Skywalk are the elevator-like rim-to-river helicopters that transport visitors to water’s edge, where motorized pontoon boats wait to take passengers upriver into the national park for a 15-to-20-minute ride.

Grand Canyon West has proven hugely successful. Grand Canyon Resort Corporation, which owns the development, earned $110 million in gross revenue in 2017. Thirty years ago, there were virtually zero visitors; in the past three years, there have been more than 1 million annually. While 83 percent of the 4.5 million annual visitors to the national park are from the United States, less than 50 percent of Grand Canyon West visitors are domestic travelers. Instead, most are international tourists—many visiting from China—who add a helicopter day trip as part of their vacation to Las Vegas, where the $300 to $550 rides are heavily marketed.

“Grand Canyon West has opened up a new market,” Graff says. “It allows Vegas tourists with very limited time to still see one of the seven wonders of the natural world.”

Rudow calls the area “Las Vegas East” and says it’s an assault not only on Grand Canyon National Park but also on the American values that created the National Park System and the Wilderness Act. “When they get dropped off in Grand Canyon West, they don’t understand that we have these ideals in America around protecting certain places to keep them wild,” he says. Rudow and other environmentalists argue that the Hualapai exception on flight numbers should be revisited since Grand Canyon West is now a thriving enterprise.

Of the $110 million earned by Grand Canyon West last year, $48.7 million was distributed to the tribe. According to a handout given to tribal members at Grand Canyon Resort Corporation’s annual shareholder meeting on March 29, 2018, $6.2 million was disbursed to individual tribal members. (Two members interviewed for this story reported getting a $2,500 check last year at Christmas.) The remainder of the $48.7 million went to the tribal government. Hualapai chairperson Clarke says the tribe’s health department, senior programs, EMS, and partial college scholarships are all subsidized by Grand Canyon West revenues. “We currently have 85 students going to college,” he says. “That is far more than ever before.”

But Clarke says the biggest impact from Grand Canyon West is simply that there are jobs on the reservation. Grand Canyon West employs more than 800 people, and 28 percent are Hualapai, according to the Grand Canyon Resort Corporation annual report. With 1,400 tribal members living on the reservation, the assumption now is that anyone who needs a job has one.

Not all tribal members are content with the new status quo, however. “Employment opportunities at Grand Canyon West have been good for the tribe, but we have many of the same problems as before—diabetes, suicide, crime, and there’s no new homes being built,” says Ted Quasula, a tribal member who lives off the reservation because of the lack of housing. “With all this money, why don’t we have a library and a tutor for every kid? We should be providing them with a free college education.” Quasula said the tribe needs to set its sights higher and have its own members become lawyers, doctors, nurses, schoolteachers, and engineers who serve the reservation. Meanwhile, most of the employment opportunities at Grand Canyon West are minimum-wage service jobs.

For John, a tribal member who works at Grand Canyon West and did not want his real name to be used for fear of losing his job, there is a certain swagger that comes from being part of something commercially successful. “We took a lesson from the playbook of western society,” he says. “We were poor for such a long time. Now we can go into Kingman to shop and not feel as much racism. Having money is instilling a sense of pride in the tribe.”

But John is aware of the environmental tradeoffs and has “mixed feelings” about the helicopter noise and how it is negatively impacting national park visitors. He reasons, however, that Grand Canyon river runners have been able to enjoy a wilderness experience for 260 miles down the Colorado, and it is only the last 15 to 20 miles of the trip that are affected by the area known as “helicopter alley.”

“I tell them, ‘I’m sorry we ruined your serenity,’” says John. “They’ve been on this escape from their life for two or three weeks, and it’s like, ‘Welcome back to your world.’”