Photo: Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department (AP)

Tony Tooke, Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, resigned on Wednesday following allegations of sexual misconduct and investigation launched by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Tooke’s resignation comes on the heels of a major PBS NewsHour investigation into sexual misconduct at the Forest Service. The investigation, which involved interviews with 34 current and former Forest Service employees, revealed widespread alleged gender discrimination, sexual harassment, assault, and bullying within the agency.

One women spoke of being groped and harassed on the job, only to be told that an investigation by the Forest Service found no misconduct had occurred. Many women alleged retaliation, including negative performance reviews and demotions, after reporting instances of misconduct, while others said they never reported harassment for fear of retaliation. Three women interviewed for the investigation said they were raped.

The allegations that surfaced during the investigation included claims that Tooke had engaged in relationships with his subordinates before becoming Forest Service Chief last fall. Shortly after publication of its initial investigation on March 1, PBS learned that the USDA had “engaged an independent investigator” to look into these complaints.

In an email to staff on Wednesday, Tooke wrote that his resignation would be effective immediately.

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He said: “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.”

In a statement emailed to Earther, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said he accepted Tooke’s resignation. “In my experience, in order to effectively lead any organization, you must have the moral authority to inspire its members to work toward the goal of continuous improvement,” Perdue’s statement reads. “Chief Tooke has determined that it is best for the Forest Service, its future, and its employees that he step aside.”

Earther has reached out to the USDA and the Forest Service for additional information on Tooke’s resignation and the ongoing investigation into his behavior, and we will update this post if we hear back.

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In response to the original PBS NewsHour investigation, a spokesman for Tooke’s office said that stories of sexual misconduct, “which have come to light over the past few years, have underscored that there are elements of sexual harassment in the Forest Service that have existed and continue today,” adding that “we acknowledge that we have more work to do.”

Allegations of a toxic workplace culture within the Forest Service go back decades, with female employees repeatedly filing class action lawsuits against gender discrimination and sexual harassment. One such lawsuit, settled back in 2000, required the Forest Service’s California workforce to investigate all complaints and provide mandatory sensitivity training, Firehouse News reported at the time.

But problems continued to surface, prompting Congress to hold a hearing to address sexual harassment and discrimination within the Forest Service in 2016. The National Park Service is grappling with similar issues, with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke pledging action last fall after a nearly a fifth of respondents to an NPS survey reported some form of gender-based harassment on the job.

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If Tooke’s resignation and this latest investigation are any indicator, the agencies managing our nation’s forests and wildlands still have a long way to go.

[PBS, PBS]

Are you a current or former Forest Service employee with something to add to this story? I’d love to hear from you. You can reach me at maddie.stone@earther.com

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