Snyder Cutting Triggers Federal Investigation

Snyder Cutting Triggers Federal Investigation

Park Service may have violated National Environmental Policy Act.

The U.S. Department of Interior's Office of the Inspector General has opened an investigation into possible federal policy violations at the National Park Service involving events leading up to the tree cutting on Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder's property.

Workers cut roughly two acres of trees on the steep slope between Snyder's River Road home and the C&O last December.

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.

Brandt distributed a document at a June 1 public meeting concerning the Snyder cutting that stated, "As part of our discussions the landowner assured the park that he had received the necessary approvals from [the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission] and was in compliance with county laws and he signed the special use permit that was conditioned upon such compliance."

The Dec. 28, 2004 civil citation issued to Snyder states that he cleared the trees "without M-NCPPC knowledge or approval."

In a response to the citation, Snyder representative Michael Sitrick said that the Snyders admit no liability and reserve the right to contest the citation pending the outcome of meetings with Park and Planning.

AT QUESTION is whether the Park Service violated provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires a study of environmental impacts and opportunities for public participation preceding all major federal actions, including land transactions.

Federal departments and agencies set their own procedures for complying with NEPA; the Park Services' are laid out in Director's Order 12, signed in 2001 by then-Director Robert Stanton.

The order and accompanying handbook outline the responsibilities of various park officials and the need for environmental impact statements, studies of alternatives, and "meaningful participation by the public and other stakeholders."

The handbook also specifies several "categorical exclusions" — routine or environmentally insignificant actions for which a full NEPA study is not necessary.

The Park Service might argue that the Snyder action fell under one categorical exclusion that includes "resource management," a term that has been applied to tree removal in some cases.

But Meredith Lathbury, general counsel for the Potomac Conservancy refuted that argument.

The Director's Order is “very specific about what things fall under NEPA ... and what things don’t,” she said. "The categorical exclusions don’t apply if there is any impact to the environment. Certainly cutting down trees has an impact to the environment."

C&O Canal National Historical Park Superintendent Kevin Brandt and Department of Interior Solicitor's Office attorney Maria Lurie, who advises the Park, have offered to meet with representatives of the  Conservancy and Audubon Naturalist Society to explain their rationale, Lathbury said.

"It's great that the Park Service has offered to do that," she said. "I'm not sure I’ll buy their argument but I’m happy to discuss it."

Brandt said in a June interview that he does not believe the park violated Park Service policies or practices, even though the negotiations were not conducted with a spirit of public participation.

Lathbury said that the Conservancy could not rule out the possibility of filing suit against the Park Service, though it currently has no plans to do so.

"We want to see the Park Service comply with their own regulations. If they’re willing to work with us on that then there won't be a need to file suit," she said. "They have an opportunity to try to right this situation and give the public what they deserve."

THE INVESTIGATION is being conducted by Special Agent David Bodge in the Office of Inspector General, Office of Program Integrity. Bodge has collected documents from the Park Service and stakeholders like the Potomac Conservancy. He attended a July 14 meeting of the task force convened by U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-8th) to address the breakdowns that led to the Snyder cutting and issue recommendations on managing scenic easements along the canal, according to several task force members. The meeting was closed to reporters, and Bodge could not be reached for comment on this story.

United States Park Police investigator John Crichfield said that the park police have passed requested information to the Interior Department Office of Inspector General, but is not conducting an investigation of its own.

"I'm not investigating anything. ... To my knowledge we don’t have an open case against Snyder," he said.