Sharon Buchannan said she called the officials at the National Park service to complain about “ravaged blight” she saw at Redskins owner Daniel Snyder’s property overlooking the C&O Canal and Potomac River, following more than 40,000 square feet of tree clearing there last December.
“The word agreement was used over and over again,” she said. “What was done was done in flagrant violation and with a taciturn approval from those who are in the know — right here.”
Don Smith said he immediately called the Park Service when he saw understory clearing taking place in June, 2004, “thinking that that would do some good.”
“I regret I didn’t know to call the National [Capital] Park and Planning [Commission],” he said.
Buchannan and Smith were among more 200 people gathered at a community meeting at Potomac Elementary last week who expressed outrage not only the tree-cutting, but also at the breakdown in communication between agencies that allowed the cutting to take place in violation of Montgomery County laws.
Snyder cleared roughly two acres of trees on the steep slope leading from his house down to the C&O Canal. 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.
The Wednesday meeting was convened by U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-8th), who represents Potomac and most of Montgomery County, following several months of interaction with constituents upset over the Snyder tree clearing. About 200 people attended the meeting to hear comments from Van Hollen and a six-person panel of “stakeholders” in the Snyder affair: C&O Canal National Historical Park Superintendent Kevin Brandt, Park and Planning Development Review Chief Rose Krasnow, Potomac Conservancy President Matthew Logan, attorney Jim Jamieson representing the Audubon Naturalist Society, West Montgomery County Citizens Association environmental chair Ginny Barnes and Joy Oakes, director of the National Parks Conservation Association.
No one in attendance was identified as Dan Snyder’s representative.
Van Hollen called for the creation of a task force that would include representatives of the Park Service and Park and Planning as well as local officials and members of conservation and community groups.
“This issue goes beyond one person and one property. We do want to see what lessons can be learned from this case,” Van Hollen said in an interview. “I do think the Park Service has acknowledged that mistakes were made. … The main purpose of the task force is to review the existing policies and procedures of the National Park Service and the County, the Park and Planning Commission, to see what we need to do.”
JAMIESON APPLAUDED the Park and Planning investigation and added that a federal investigation has begun. “We have also been assured by the Office of the Solicitor in the United States Department of Interior that federal investigation of potential violations of federal law is underway,” Jamieson said.
The park service denies the existence of a federal investigation.
“I don’t know where the Audubon Naturalist Society is getting that information from,” said Bill Line, spokesman for the National Park Service, National Capital Region. “It is 100 percent wrong, erroneous, incorrect — no truth to it whatsoever.”
Several sources confirmed that Maria Lurie, an attorney in the Parks and Wildlife division of the Solicitor’s Office was present at meetings with Brandt, Logan, and other stakeholders prior to the June 1 community meeting. But her presence does not signal an investigation, Line said.
“They provide legal advice and counsel to the Park Service on a wide range of issues,” he said. “They do not do legal investigations.”
However Brandt said, “We understand that they’re in discussion or evaluation of [an investigation],” but that “before a real full blown investigation can take place, we need to be notified.”
”Once we get something from Park and Planning or the county, however that comes to us, we’ll evaluate that and take appropriate steps,” he said.
THE TONE of the community meeting was civil, and at times conciliatory, but citizens expressed cynicism at the failures of the agencies involved and the potential efficacy of the task force in fixing those failures.
“This is the third time that I as a citizen of Potomac have lived through this story,” Del. Jean Cryor (R-15), who represents Potomac, said at the meeting. “Do I have to come here again in another couple of years and hear about someone else who has taken the law into their own hands and is going to be slapped on the wrist … and people will walk away and say I don’t understand how this happened?”
Judy Koenick, a citizen, expressed concern at the potential of imposing soft penalties. “He cuts down a tree, don’t let him come in with toothpicks and don’t fine him something where all he’s going to do is turn around and raise the Redskins ticket prices,” she said.
Brandt provided a document outlining immediate efforts to coordinate more closely with Park and Planning and to provide clearer information to park visitors wishing to report possible infractions.
Meanwhile, all of the park’s negotiations regarding scenic easements have been suspended pending the outcome of the Park and Planning investigation, he said.
Brandt said it was a mystery to him that Park Service and Park and Planning had failed to coordinate their conservation efforts in the 13 years since the Montgomery County Forest Conservation Law was passed.
But for citizens feeling a violation of public trust, efforts to amend that gap come too late.
“I think the task force is a good idea, I’m all in favor of it, but I don’t think it's going to solve the big problems that this meeting shows we have,” said Barnes, who worked with Van Hollen’s office to organize the meeting. “There are huge questions left about why the Park Service didn’t follow their own procedures.”
Jamieson cited as evidence of that failure language in the National Park Service Agreement to “Exchange Real Property,” dated October, 2004 that states that the Park Service shall “notify the public and various governmental bodies of the proposed exchange” including “publication of a Notice of Realty Action in a local newspaper providing a minimum 45-day period for public comment.” No such notification took place.
“We don’t believe we violated our policy or our practices, but I don’t know that it was in the true spirit of involving as many people as we can,” Brandt said.
For now, all eyes are fixed squarely on Park and Planning, which Krasnow said is very close to announcing the terms of an agreement with Snyder.
“If they don’t take it seriously and levy the most serious penalties that they can, then they’re going to lose a fair amount of credibility,” Logan said.
POTOMAC CONSERVANCY: AN EVOLVING POSITION
Potomac Conservancy president Matthew Logan took criticism from others in the conservation community after initially lending support to the Park Service position that allowing the Snyder tree-cutting was in the best long-term interest of the park because it would strengthen a weak, vulnerable easement.
He later said in interviews that he still believed the easements were weak but had meant only that the felt that the Park Service was trying to address an important problem, not that it had handled the situation well.
"Our position has changed," Logan said. He said that the Conservancy position has evolved as it examined the Special Use Permit issued to Snyder and made available through a Freedom of Information Act Request and as Conservancy attorneys have studied the provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires an environmental assessment and often an environmental impact statement for federal land actions such as the Snyder tree-cutting.
"Its very clear that public input and an environmental assessment would be required for this type of land transaction," and the hastiness and opacity of the Park Services dealings deserves criticism. "I'm trying to take it from a much broader, community perspective."
"I could see us trying to pursue this as far as we can," Logan said. Asked if that included the possibility of legal action, Logan said it he would not rule it out.
"If that’s what's necessary to protect the resource. We’ll certainly consider it," he said.
NEIGHBOR OFFERS EASEMENT DONATION
Don Smith, a neighbor several lots south of Daniel Snyder on Admiral Way in Potomac, announced at the June 1 meeting that he had contacted the National Park Service offering to donate a stronger easement on the federally-protected land behind his house.
“I talked to [Park Service Land Management Specialist Bill] Spinrad in January and am still waiting for any response,” Smith said. “The Park Service has not responded.”
The Park Service has put all current and new easement negotiations on hold pending the outcome of a Park and Planning Commission investigation into the Snyder tree-cutting — an internal review of easement policies — leaving Smith’s effort in limbo, but conservation leaders at the meeting applauded the gesture.
“Having a landowner who steps up and says me first, which is essentially what Don did — you need that pioneer that says, ‘This is important and I’m willing to take that first step,” said Potomac Conservancy President Matthew Logan. “That was probably the most encouraging thing that happened last night.”
The Conservancy works with landowners on both sides of the Potomac in facilitating easement donations like the one Smith offered. Logan said that Conservancy attorneys have made plans to contact Smith.
Even amid citizen outrage over the circumstances that allowed Snyder’s tree-cutting, conservation group leaders and officials agreed that the incident has had positive consequences.
“It’s got people talking in the ways that we hadn’t in the 13 years that the county has had this tool [the forest conservation law]. I think that’s really significant,” C&O Canal National Historical Park Superintendent Kevin Brandt said.
“It’s this passion which gives us hope,” said Potomac Conservancy president Matthew Logan, referring to the outpouring of citizen concern over the tree-cutting incident and park conservation. “Absent that what do we have? We just have a legal designation of a park on a map.”
“I think close to 200 people at a meeting really sends a message that a whole lot of people care about the experience at that park and that figuring out how to make the government agencies responsible,” said Neal Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Audubon Naturalist Society.
“That’s more of the story in my view than finding out what’s going to happen with Dan Snyder,” he said. “It’s morphed from that original interesting in ‘Ooh look at what he’s doing’ to ‘How do we protect something that everybody loves?”