As the National Park Service confronts what Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has called a “culture” of sexual harassment, the agency allowed barely clad swimsuit models to take photos with iconic park backdrops.
These shoots — used for the first time last year in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and reprised by National Geographic in May’s issue on Yellowstone National Park — have angered park watchdogs, employees and advocates, who say the images undermine the effort to fight sexual misconduct.
The critics draw a line between sexual harassment and what they see as images that exploit women.
The Park Service “is dealing with sexual harassment and discrimination issues which are more difficult to address when seen through the prism of this shoot,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsiblity (PEER).
The swimsuit issue did not cause a stir when it went on newsstands last year featuring models in skimpy bikinis posing in Yellowstone, Bryce Canyon and Grand Teton national parks.
But that was before the Interior Department inspector general’s office issued an explosive investigation in January documenting how multiple female employees at the Grand Canyon were repeatedly propositioned for sex and were targets of unwanted attention by male employees, some of whom were their supervisors. Another investigation released in June found similar sexual misconduct at Canaveral National Seashore, in Florida.
Ruch’s group has filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Park Service for permits the agency issued to Sports Illustrated as well as correspondence on the shoots between National Geographic and park officials about the magazine’s use of a photo of model Jessica Gomes posing in front of a spot known as the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. National Parks Traveler first reported on the request.
In an interview Tuesday, Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk recalled that Sports Illustrated’s request for permits to stage shoots for the swimsuit edition prompted “a lot of discussion” across the agency “about whether the photos were appropriate” for family-friendly national parks.
But the request was approved. “At the time, we said, this is a respected magazine, and there’s nothing unusual here,” Wenk said. The Yellowstone permit was among about 150 approved for commercial photo shoots every year.
But today, with top Park Service officials pledging to turn around a sexual-harassment problem they acknowledge goes beyond two parks, “We would look at this request through a different lens,” Wenk said.
“There would be a different level of scrutiny, and that would be a good discussion to have,” he said. But it’s impossible to know if the outcome would have been any different, he said.
Tom Crosson, the Park Service’s chief of public affairs, said in an email that the agency “wholeheartedly respects the concerns raised by our employees and [we] encourage them to engage in dialogue about issues and concerns they have in their parks and across the service.”
But he said the Park Service does “not apply a ‘morals test’ when granting access to our parks for legal activities,” considering only factors such as the potential effect on the park and visitors’ use.
National Geographic Director of Communications Anna Kukelhaus said in an email that the swimsuit photograph is one of about 70 images of Yellowstone in the May issue, where it appears in a piece called “Learning to Let the Wild Be Wild in Yellowstone.”
Kukelhaus said the publication “did not want to just showcase the natural and ageless beauty of the park, but to look at how the park is used and how people interact with it.”
Gomes’s image, in nothing but cowboy boots and a bikini, pulling the bottom of the suit down on her buttocks, is “one of the ways the park is used,” Kukelhaus said.
Critics say the photographs are simply not the message the Park Service should be sending to anyone.
Park Service “leaders are currently under harsh scrutiny for numerous sexual harassment cases,” said Joan Anzelmo, a retired park superintendent who is active in the Coalition to Protect America’s Parks.
“Allowing this commercial photography shoot which included topless and nearly naked models posing in sexually provocative poses at iconic national park sites underscores that objectifying women seems to be a systemic part of the [Park Service] culture,” she said.