BILLINGS, Mont. — The chief of the U.S. Forest Service has stepped down just days after revelations that he's been under investigation for alleged sexual misconduct and amid reports of rampant misbehavior, including rape, within the agency's ranks.
A Forest Service spokesman on Thursday confirmed agency chief Tony Tooke's sudden retirement, effective immediately and less than seven months after he was named to the post by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.
His departure was first reported by the Missoulian. It comes less than a week after PBS NewsHour reported Tooke was under investigation following relationships with subordinates before he became chief.
In a Wednesday night email to Forest Service employees, Tooke said the agency "deserves a leader who can maintain the proper moral authority" as it addresses instances of harassment, bullying and retaliation.
He did not directly deny the allegations against him, saying he "cannot combat every inaccuracy that is reported."
"In some of these news reports you may have seen references to my own behavior in the past," Tooke wrote. "This naturally raised questions about my record and prompted an investigation, which I requested and fully support and with which I have cooperated."
Lawmakers from both parties in Congress expressed outrage over events at the Forest Service, and called for a hearing and investigation.
"I plan to use every tool to ensure all bad actors are held accountable," said Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines of Montana, who chairs the Senate agriculture subcommittee that oversees the Forest Service. He said he'll hold a hearing on sexual harassment in the agency.
Rep. Jackie Speier of California, a Democrat and leading voice in Congress against sex harassment, said a broad investigation was needed into the Forest Service's "toxic culture" by the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Forest Service spokesman Byron James declined to say if the investigation into Tooke would continue. A replacement was not immediately announced.
The Forest Service has about 35,000 employees and manages more than 300,000 square miles of forests and grasslands in 43 states and Puerto Rico.
PBS and other outlets, including The Associated Press, have previously reported on a culture of harassment and retaliation at the Forest Service. Many of the problems mirror misconduct within the nation's other major public lands agency, the Interior Department.
Lawmakers in Congress held hearings on sex harassment at the agencies in 2016. Senior officials have repeatedly vowed to address the problem, both during the administration of former President Barack Obama and more recently under President Donald Trump.
Perdue's office did not immediately respond to telephone and email messages from The Associated Press seeking comment.
Tooke, a native of Alabama who joined the Forest Service at the age of 18, had worked in Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi. Prior to becoming chief he served as regional forester for the southern U.S.
In announcing his appointment in August, Perdue cited Tooke's knowledge of forestry and his dedication to the "noble cause" of being a steward of public forests.
"Tony has been preparing for this role his whole life," Perdue said at the time. "His transition into leadership will be seamless.
U.S. scientists studying the effects of uranium mining around the Grand Canyon say they are lacking information on whether the radioactive element is hurting plants, animals and a water source for more than 30 million people.
And they would not get to fully gather it if President Donald Trump's 2019 budget proposal is approved.
The U.S. Geological Survey is leading a 15-year study meant to determine whether a 1 million-acre area surrounding the national park needs protection from new uranium mining claims well into the future. Now, no one can stake claims until 2032, though a portion of that Obama-era ban is under review by the Trump administration.
The agency says it's received far less money for its study than what's needed so far and would be left with nothing under Trump's plan, which eliminates the money in favor of other priorities.
"We love to provide information," Geological Survey hydrologist Fred Tillman said. "If you don't get the funding to do it, you simply can't do the studies."
Former President Barack Obama's administration implemented the ban in 2012 as uranium prices soared and a flurry of new mining claims came pouring in. It faced a backlash from Republicans, who touted improved mining techniques and lamented job loss in a remote area.
Without the study to document the effects of mining, some fear industry supporters would point to a lack of evidence of environmental harm to reopen the area to mining.
A federal appeals court recently upheld the ban, but the U.S. Forest Service is reviewing whether it's necessary on 360,000 acres it manages. It follows an order by Trump to identify regulations that stand in the way of energy production.
The ban provided an avenue for the Geological Survey to study uranium-bearing pipes, groundwater flow, windborne dust, and plants and animals near mines. Of particular concern for the Obama administration was the Colorado River, a lifeline for millions of people in seven Western states that runs nearly 300 miles through the Grand Canyon.
Those supporting the ban have pointed to the legacy of death and disease on the nearby Navajo Nation, the country's largest American Indian reservation, from Cold War-era uranium mining.
Without the science, the concern is "just opinion," said Jan Balsom, senior adviser to the Grand Canyon National Park superintendent.
"I'm not comfortable with that being the only source of information," she recently told reporters on a tour of the lower Colorado River basin.
The Geological Survey said its Environmental Health Mission funds the work, allocating $800,000 to $1.5 million a year to the studies between 2013 and 2017. That's about half the estimated need annually. Trump's 2019 budget proposal nixes all funding for the program.
The agency's associate director for environmental studies, Geoff Plumlee, said he's proud of the work done so far under budget constraints and will await word from Congress on what science will be produced.
Other federal agencies and universities work to fill the knowledge gaps and have contributed funding for the larger effort.
Northern Arizona is rich in high-grade uranium ore, and companies have staked hundreds of claims in the area. Even with the ban, federal agencies estimated a dozen uranium mines would open under claims that were grandfathered in.
The 15-year plan assumed two mines would open and close before the ban expires. But one mine is still trying to get permits, and the Canyon Mine about 6 miles from the Grand Canyon's popular South Rim entrance won't open unless uranium prices rise significantly.
Energy Fuels Inc. owns both mines. Company president Mark Chalmers said the Canyon Mine will be mined responsibly and won't harm people or the environment. He said its footprint is small and the ore extracted could provide an annual supply of power for Arizona.
"There will be some people that will say ... 'uranium mining has contaminated the water in Grand Canyon already,'" he said. "It is false, it is false. Natural contamination from the uranium is already in the system. Mother Nature put it there."
WASHINGTON — After months of trading insults and threats of nuclear annihilation, President Donald Trump agreed to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jung Un by the end of May to negotiate an end to Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program, South Korean and U.S. officials said Thursday. No sitting American president has ever met with a North Korea leader.
The meeting would be unprecedented during seven decades of animosity between the U.S. and North Korea. The countries remain in a state of war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice and not a peace treaty.
"Great progress being made," Trump tweeted after the South Korean national security director, Chung Eui-yong, announced the plans to reporters in a hastily called appearance on a White House driveway.
Trump added that sanctions will remain in place until there's a deal.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in said the summit will be a "historical milestone" that will put the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula "really on track."
In a statement read early today by his spokesman, Moon also complimented Trump for accepting Kim's invitation for a summit, saying Trump's leadership will be praised "not only by the residents of South and North Korea but every peace-loving person around the world."
Trump took office vowing to stop North Korea from attaining a nuclear-tipped missile that could reach the U.S. mainland, a goal that Pyongyang is on the cusp of reaching. He's oscillated between threats and insults directed at Kim that have fueled fears of war, and more conciliatory rhetoric.
The historic announcement comes during a period of unparalleled tumult in the West Wing, with the president's policy agenda stalled and morale sinking as staff departures proliferate and disrupt efforts to instill more discipline and order.
Trump clearly relished the news of the planned summit. He had made a surprise visit to the White House press briefing room on Thursday afternoon to alert reporters of a "major statement" on North Korea by South Korea. When asked by an ABC reporter if it was about talks with North Korea, he replied: "It's almost beyond that. Hopefully, you will give me credit."
Earlier Thursday, Chung had briefed Trump and other top U.S. officials about a rare meeting with Kim in the North Korean capital. During that meeting, the rival Koreas agreed to hold a leadership summit in late April, the first in a decade.
Kim "expressed his eagerness to meet President Trump as soon as possible," Chung told reporters. "President Trump appreciated the briefing and said he would meet Kim Jong Un by May to achieve permanent denuclearization."
The White House said Trump's meeting with Kim would take place "at a place and time to be determined."
"Kim Jong Un talked about denuclearization with the South Korean Representatives, not just a freeze," Trump said in a tweet. "Also, no missile testing by North Korea during this period of time."
It marks a dramatic shift in Trump's stance toward North Korea. He has threatened the pariah nation with "fire and fury" if its threats against the U.S. and its allies continued. He has derided Kim by referring to him as "Little Rocket Man." Kim has pilloried Trump as "senile" and a "dotard."
After Kim repeated threats against the U.S. in a New Year's address and mentioned the "nuclear button" on his office desk, Trump responded by tweeting that he has a nuclear button, too, "but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!"
North Korea appeared to confirm the summit plans. A senior North Korean diplomat at the United Nations in New York, Pak Song Il, told The Washington Post in an e-mail that the invitation was the result of Kim's "broad minded and resolute decision" to contribute to the peace and security of the Korean Peninsula.
By the "great courageous decision of our Supreme Leader, we can take the new aspect to secure the peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula and the East Asia region," Pak wrote.
On Tuesday after leaving Pyongyang, Chung had publicized that North Korea was offering talks with the United States on denuclearization and normalizing ties. But the proposal for a summit still came as a surprise, and will raise questions about whether the two sides are ready for such a high-level meeting.
Just a few hours earlier, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who is traveling in Africa, had said the adversaries were still a long way from holding negotiations.
Chung, who credited Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign for the diplomatic opening on the nuclear issue, said Kim understands that routine U.S.-South Korea military drills "must continue."
The drills were suspended during the Winter Olympics recently hosted by South Korea, which provided impetus for the inter-Korea rapprochement. The drills are expected to resume next month and had widely been seen as an obstacle to talks. North Korea has long protested the military maneuvers south of the divided Korean Peninsula as a rehearsal for invading the North.
When the South Korean delegation briefed Trump in the Oval Office, he was joined by a number of top advisers, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, chief of staff John Kelly and the director of national intelligence, among others, according to a senior Trump administration official who briefed reporters after the announcement. The official, who was not authorized to discuss the sensitive diplomatic issue by name and spoke on condition of anonymity, said there was no letter from Kim to Trump, just an oral briefing from the South Korean officials.