BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) ó The U.S. Forest Service faces "hard truths" about harassment and retaliation in its ranks following the departure of its chief amid allegations of sexual misconduct, the agency's newly-appointed leader said Friday.
Forest Service interim Chief Vicki Christiansen said in an email to agency employees that she stands with them and will take steps to provide a safe workplace.
She was appointed to the post Thursday to replace Tony Tooke, who abruptly retired this week amid revelations he was under investigation and accused of relationships with subordinates.
Lawmakers in Congress and other observers said Tooke's troubles reflect broader cultural problems within the male-dominated Forest Service. The issue dates back to at least the 1970s, when a class action lawsuit alleged discrimination against women when it came to hiring and promotions in the agency.
Christiansen has spent her career as a wildland firefighter and joined the Forest Service in 2010. She'd worked for 30 years at the state level, in Arizona and Washington.
"We've had to face some hard truths about allegations of harassment and retaliation in our agency, even as we stare down some of the biggest land-management challenges in our nation's history," she wrote in Friday's email. "I know we are up to the task.
Just over a third of the Forest Service's permanent employees are women, a figure that drops during the summer with additional seasonal hires, according to agency statistics.
In announcing Christiansen's appointment, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue tasked her with two goals: improving the agency's response to sexual misconduct while effectively managing more than 300,000 square miles (777,000 square kilometers) of forests and grasslands in 43 states and Puerto Rico.
The leadership shakeup renewed calls from Congress for the Forest Service to more aggressively address complaints of sexual harassment, bullying and in some cases rape. Its problems mirror recent misconduct scandals within the nation's other major public lands agency, the Interior Department.
Abby Bolt, a Forest Service employee in California with a pending sexual discrimination complaint against her male supervisors, told The Associated Press that rumors of Tooke's relationships started circulating within the agency as soon as he was appointed.
Bolt, a fire battalion chief now on leave, said she was hopeful Christiansen would bring some "fresh eyes" to the Forest Service's problems.
Almost half of Forest Service employees interviewed as part of a recent sexual harassment audit expressed distrust in the process of reporting complaints, according to a report from the Agriculture Department's inspector general.
Perdue said more steps already were being taken to protect victims from retaliation. Those include using outside investigators for at least the next year to investigate sexual misconduct allegations, according to the agency's response to the Inspector General's audit.
Perdue's office has not responded to repeated questions about whether the investigation into Tooke would continue. Agency officials have also declined to answer if an outside investigator was handling his case.
After Congressional hearings on sex harassment at the Forest Service and Interior Department in 2016, senior officials repeatedly vowed to address the problem, both during the administration of former President Barack Obama and more recently under President Donald Trump.
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