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Group Takes on Commmunication After Tree-Cutting

Task force, designed to study Park Service failure on Snyder tree clearing, meets in secret.

A task force of citizens and officials met behind closed doors July 14 to address environmental conservation along the C&O Canal National Historical Park.

It was the first meeting of the task force proposed by U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-8th) at a June 1 community meeting. That meeting that drew more than 200 people, many expressing outrage following the revelation last year that Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder cut roughly two acres of trees on the steep slope between his River Road home and the canal near Swain’s Lock.

Most of the trees were protected by a federal conservation easement in place since the 1970s, but the National Park Service allowed the cutting in a special use permit negotiated with Snyder’s representatives over more than three years. The cutting violated Montgomery County’s forest conservation law, triggering a $1,000 civil citation issued Dec. 28, 2004 and an ongoing investigation by the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which may result in significantly larger fines and restoration measures.

A Park and Planning staffer said that an agreement with Snyder — which will likely impose fines and restoration actions while saving Snyder from appearing before the Planning Board — is imminent and an announcement could come this week or next. The terms of the agreement will be made publicly available.

But while the Park and Planning action may put the Snyder issue to rest, citizens remain concerned about the lapses in communication between county and federal agencies and the secret negotiations at the Park Service that allowed the Snyder cutting to take place at all.

THOSE ARE the issues that the Van Hollen task force hopes to address.

“We’re not trying to rewrite easements — that’s not our job. Our job is to amend regulations to make sure that this doesn’t happen again,” said Ginny Barnes, environmental chair of the West Montgomery County Citizens Association and a member of the task force.

Barnes said that the three tentative goals of the task force were to help amend the county forest conservation law, to help amend similar laws at the state level and to address the lapses in communication that let the cutting take place unbeknownst to the county or the public.

“The reason Snyder cut down all those trees is not because any of these laws failed, it's because the Park Service let him do it,” Barnes said.

Documents from the Park Service reveal a more than three-year exchange between the Park Service and Snyder’s representatives leading up to the tree clearing last year. Those negotiations began under former Superintendent Doug Faris, who died last year, and continued with current Superintendent Kevin Brandt at the helm.

Brandt at first said that allowing the cutting was beneficial to the park, because over the long term it would strengthen the currently weak protections on Snyder’s land and because many of the trees that were removed were invasive species.

At the June 1 meeting, he took a more conservative position, announcing that the Park Service had frozen easement negotiations pending measures to regulate compliance more closely, that the Park Service was “alarmed” by Snyder’s (legal) clearing of understory trees of less than six inches diameter at breast height. Brandt said that Snyder had deceived the Park Service by saying he had received approval from the county to remove the larger trees. He also said that the Park Service’s negotiations with Snyder did not violate internal policies but were not conducted in a spirit of inclusiveness or transparency.

In light of such failures, task force members stressed the importance of fostering communication.

“The idea is to come up with a set of recommendations designed to protect the park going forward, to avoid the kind of situations we saw with respect to the Snyder property and to improve communication,” Van Hollen said. “The purpose of this task force is to go beyond the specific case of the Snyder property.”

Task force members said the July 14 meeting was primarily organizational, with most of the time spent hashing out possible objectives and bringing newcomers who were unfamiliar with the issue up to speed. An outside facilitator, University of Maryland Environmental Finance Center Director Dan Nees, oversaw the meeting.

The task force includes Maryland Sen. Rob Garagiola (D-15), staffers representing Van Hollen, U.S. Rep Roscoe Bartlett (R-6th), County Councilmember Howard Denis (R-1) along with representatives of the Potomac Conservancy, Audubon Naturalist Society, C&O Canal Association, National Park Service, C&O Canal National Historical Park Advisory Commission, Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission, and public at large. The exact membership of the task force has not been made public.

The first meeting was closed to reporters and task force members said that Van Hollen staffers asked one reporter to leave during the meeting.

Normally a public body appointed to make recommendations on policy issues would be subject to the Maryland Open Meetings Act. The law would apply if the task force had been brought together by the County Council, the Planning Board, the County Executive, or virtually any county employee acting in an official capacity.

But as federal official, the Maryland law does not apply to Van Hollen, and since the existence of the task force has not been formalized by any code or official action, it is functionally equivalent to a group of concerned citizens meeting in private, according to Ryan Lozar, an attorney at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

“It exists, it just hasn’t been formally created,” Lozar said, allowing the group to escape sunshine provisions.

But in the context of an issue that arose in large part through less-than-transparent actions, the decision to close the meetings raises questions.

Van Hollen said in an interview that the decision came from the task force members themselves not from “some fiat” from his office.

“[They] felt they could have much fuller or franker exchange ideas if they weren’t worried about statements they made possibly being taken out of context or having to worry about everything they said,” Van Hollen said. “That could change going forward. … I would be very pleased to have this open to the press."

But Barnes and Logan said that the decision to close the meeting came from Van Hollen’s office.

“We didn’t say anything. We certainly weren’t asked. This information was given to us,” Barnes said.

Logan said that he would be perfectly comfortable with reporters — and other members of the public — in the meetings.

“It doesn’t alter our participation — Potomac Conservancy’s participation — in any way. I’d feel free to say anything in front of a reporter than we would in a task force,” he said.