Tony Tooke, the head of the U.S. Forest Service, has resigned after accusations of personal sexual misconduct, he announced today in an email to Forest Service employees. The resignation follows a damning report last week by PBS NewsHour, which cited a culture of workplace harassment and misconduct that stretches back decades and has not been resolved. In the process of their reporting, PBS uncovered numerous allegations of improper conduct by Tooke before he became chief in September 2017. The day after the report, the Department of Agriculture, of which the USFS is a part, announced that it had “engaged an independent investigator” to look into the accusations.
Tooke, in an email to PBS last week, wrote, “I’m in support of this investigation, and I have fully cooperated from the start. I expect to be held to the same standards as every other Forest Service employee.”
In announcing his resignation today, he wrote, “I have been forthright during the review, but I cannot combat every inaccuracy that is reported in the news media. What I can control, however, are decisions I make today and the choice of a path for the future that is best for our employees, the Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. I must also think about what is best for my family. Therefore, I have decided that what is needed right now is for me to step down as Forest Service Chief and make way for a new leader that can ensure future success for all employees and the agency.”
Despite recent scrutiny, including a 2016 congressional investigation into the USFS in California, the Forest Service remains a toxic workplace for many women. As long ago as 1972, female Forest Service employees were joining together in a class action suit to fight harassment and gender discrimination. But the problems persist: PBS interviewed 34 women, who relayed stories of rape, assault, and recrimination when misconduct was reported.
The story of firefighter Michaela Myers was typical:
She remembers her supervisor, a Forest Service veteran, offering her beers at a crew member’s house after dinner. He told her he was glad she was on the crew because she was “sexy” and had “a nice ass,” she said. According to her account, he led her to a couch, rubbed her butt as she sat down, and slid his hand between her legs. Myers was shocked and upset, but didn’t stop him. She had heard from other crew members that [the supervisor] could fly off the handle, and didn’t want to make a scene.
“You don’t feel like you can say ‘no’ loudly to your supervisor,” she said. “I keep looking back on it and wishing I could have just punched him or something.”
At the end of her three-month stint in Oregon, Myers reported the harassment she experienced all summer. The service responded a couple months later, saying that no harassment was found and the case was closed.
The Forest Service is far from the only organization with pervasive sexual misconduct issues. A 2017 workplace survey conducted by the National Park Service found that 40 percent of the respondents had experienced harassment, discrimination, or hostility in the previous 12 months. The Park Service acting director Mike Reynolds said to employees at the time, “The survey makes it clear that NPS has a significant problem with harassment; it has infiltrated our organization and needs to stop now. To all of the employees here in the canyon and in the field affected by harassment, on behalf of the leadership of NPS, I want to apologize and commit to you with everything available that we will better support you.”
Photo of Tony Tooke being sworn in as Forest Service chief by Lance Cheung