WASHINGTON — A Forest Service firefighter from California's Eldorado National Forest blew another whistle Thursday on sexual harassment and gender bias inside federal public lands agencies.
Reinforcing claims previously made by many others over many years, Fire Prevention Technician Denice Rice told a House panel of repeated problems facing women, who remain greatly outnumbered by men in the Forest Service.
"Women who report sexual harassment are retaliated against," Rice advised the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. "It is your word against his, and you know the moment you open your mouth to speak up you are committing career suicide."
Rice's testimony echoed, in part, some of the complaints made in September to the same House committee by Yosemite National Park fire and aviation management chief Kelly Martin. Since that high-profile hearing, other public lands employees have come forward with their own accounts.
Unlike some other investigations undertaken by the House oversight committee, these ongoing probes have united, for the moment, congressional Republicans and Democrats. That's likely to amplify the pressure on executive branch agencies to confront the allegations.
"You represent a lot of voices that are quiet and silent," Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, the chair of the committee, told Rice. He added that "we will go to the end of the Earth to protect you."
A 20-year veteran of the Forest Service, Rice has worked in fire protection in the Eldorado for the past 15 years. The forest includes within its boundaries about 787,000 acres of public and private land in the central Sierra Nevada mountains.
Rice testified that between 2009 and 2011, her second line supervisor repeatedly harassed her sexually. In 2011, she said, he assaulted her; and then, she said, her life "became a living hell."
"I filed a complaint and the instant I filed everything changed," Rice testified. "Management removed all of my supervisory responsibilities, moved me from my location, and isolated me."
Forest Service officials eventually let the man Rice called a "predator" retire without a mark on his record, she testified.
In August 2014, citing a litany of similar problems, female employees within the Forest Service's California-based Region 5 joined in a formal agency complaint. Mediation efforts in San Francisco failed last year, potentially setting the stage for an escalation of the fight to federal court.
"I fear the new administration will have a class-action lawsuit to contend with in 2017," said Lesa L. Donnelly, vice president of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees.
It wouldn't be the first one.
In the early 1970s, a California-based Forest Service research sociologist named Gene Bernardi filed a sex discrimination class-action lawsuit against the agency after she was denied a promotion. A subsequent consent decree compelled federal officials to hire more women and institute additional protections, but continuing complaints led to additional lawsuits in the 1990s.
Women currently comprise 35 percent of the Forest Service workforce, and hold half of the agency's top executive leadership positions, according to Lenise Lago, deputy chief for business operations. Only about 10 percent of wildland firefighters are women, despite more aggressive Forest Service recruiting efforts.
Lago also cited enhanced training for Forest Service employees, including "Prevention of Sexual Harassment" classes that all Region 5 workers must attend annually.
Joe Leonard Jr., assistant secretary for civil rights for the Agriculture Department, of which the Forest Service is a part, added that officials have also undertaken "an independent climate assessment of how female employees in Region 5 are treated," as well as a reorganization of the Forest Service's civil rights' staff.
"While there's still much to do, we've made significant progress," Leonard said.