Forest Service Chief Retires Amid Sexual Misconduct Investigation

The chief of the U.S. Forest Service abruptly stepped down on Wednesday, noting that his own behavior was under investigation as the agency deals with sexual harassment and abuse incidents.

Tony Tooke replaced Tom Tidwell last August as the leader of almost 30,000 employees in all 50 states. An exposé last week on PBS aired accounts of numerous female Forest Service employees recounting a culture of harassment in the agency. In his resignation letter, Tooke acknowledge that he was part of the problem.

“In some of these news reports, you may have seen references to my own behavior in the past,” Tooke wrote in an email to Forest Service employees. “This naturally raised questions about my record and prompted an investigation, which I requested and fully support, and with which I have cooperated. 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.”

Tooke said his retirement was effective immediately.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue accepted Tooke’s resignation late Wednesday afternoon.

“The Forest Service is filled with dedicated employees from across this nation who devote their lives to promoting healthy and productive forests for the benefit of taxpayers and our environment,” Perdue said in an email. “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. Chief Tooke has determined that it is best for the Forest Service, its future, and its employees that he step aside. I thank him for his decades of service to this nation and to the conservation of its natural resources.”

Other sources in the agency said no follow-up messages about Tooke’s announcement had been received Wednesday afternoon.

A two-part report by PBS NewsHour last week documented numerous allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct over years in the Forest Service, including from female firefighters in Montana. Three sources in the report claimed they had been raped by fellow employees. The Forest Service acknowledged in the report that it had received 1,013 reports of harassment, and completed inquiries or investigations in 632 cases since September 2016.

Retired Forest Service aviation expert Bill Gabbert said on his Wildfire Today blog that the PBS reports made him question if he’d recommend a spouse, daughter or girlfriend seek work in the agency.

“This is a disgusting, demoralizing, distasteful, detestable scandal facing the agency where I spent 20 years,” Gabbert wrote on March 4. “Looking at the sheer numbers, and knowing that allegations of sexual misconduct go all the way to the top, it is hard to fathom how anyone who has been mistreated can be optimistic that the harassment will stop, or that the perpetrators will be brought to justice. This HAS to be the Forest Service’s number one priority — clean up this wreckage that is festering within their workforce.”

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