After sexual harassment problems, new Forest Service chief mandates training

PHOTO: U.S. Forest Service firefighters take a break from battling the Rim Fire at camp Mather near Groveland, Calif., Aug. 25, 2013. PlayJustin Sullivan/Getty Images, FILE
WATCH What sexual harassment is and what to do about it

The interim chief of the U.S. Forest Service said 30,000 government employees will get a full day of training about harassment and safety in the workplace next week, less than a year after the head of the agency stepped down amid a sexual harassment investigation.

Interim Chief Vicki Christensen took the helm of the Forest Service after former Chief Tony Tooke resigned following reports of inappropriate behavior toward his subordinates. The agency has faced years of complaints and class action lawsuits from women related to sexual harassment and misconduct and women in the Service have reported being threatened with retaliation if they did not consent to sexual overtures from a supervisor, according to a USDA inspector general report.

Christensen said that service's success depends on skilled, motivated employees and that they are working urgently to end harassment and retaliation.

"You have my personal commitment to do whatever it takes to bring about a permanent culture change in the Forest Service," she said in a hearing with a Senate committee.

In a post on the Forest Service website, Christensen said the day of training called Stand Up For Each Other will include videos with Forest Service leaders and subject matter experts, as well as discussions about values, respect, and safety in the workplace.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, brought up the issue of sexual harassment in a hearing about the upcoming wildfire season on Tuesday, saying that workplace misconduct cannot be tolerated in dangerous situations like fire lines.

"To effectively fight fires and manage the lands, you must rid your agencies of sexual harassment, bullying, and retaliation," Murkowski, the chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee said at the start of the hearing. "Workplace misconduct cannot be tolerated, especially on the fire lines in the field. Focus on the mission – and be professional about it – or be ready to face the consequences."

PHOTO: A Hot Shot crew climbs a hill while cutting a line among homes at the Thomas Fire, Dec. 16, 2017, in Montecito, Calif.David McNew/Getty Images
A Hot Shot crew climbs a hill while cutting a line among homes at the Thomas Fire, Dec. 16, 2017, in Montecito, Calif.

Last year was one of the worst wildfire seasons on record and crews are already fighting fires in the Southwest part of the country this year. One of the biggest wildfires in California history, the Thomas Fire, was only declared extinguished last week six months after it started.

The Forest Service and Department of Agriculture have said that as wildfires become more serious and expensive to fight, the agencies risk running out of money to clean up debris to prepare for the next fire season. Congress made some changes to the funding in the omnibus funding bill passed in March that officials say will help improve wildfire prevention and suppression.

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