Insider ‘Unduly Influenced’ Park

Insider ‘Unduly Influenced’ Park

Inspector general’s report finds that the Park Service violated its own policies and circumvented federal law in allowing Daniel Snyder to clear trees.

A federal inspector general’s report released May 26 found that the National Park Service officials violated Park Service policies, steered clear of federal environmental law, and ignored the advice of the Park Service’s chief horticulturist in allowing Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder to cut 1.3 acres of mature trees behind his Potomac home in December 2004.

The report by Department of Interior Inspector General Earl E. Devaney, dated Jan. 19, paints a portrait of back-room Washington, D.C. politics — complete with closed-door meetings, possible negotiations in a Redskins skybox, and offers of tit-for-tat contributions to federal projects.

It pins most of the blame on a Department of Interior insider, P. Daniel Smith, who helped Snyder secure a Park Service special use permit to cut the trees even though they were protected by a conservation easement that Snyder inherited when he bought the house on River Road near Swain’s Lock.

"The unprecedented decision to allow Mr. Snyder to cut on the easement resulted from the undue influence of P. Daniel Smith. Smith inappropriately used his position to apply pressure and circumvent NPS procedures" through phone calls and personal meetings with Park Service officials "on Snyder’s behalf," the report stated.

Smith is currently superintendent of Colonial National Historical Park in Jamestown, Va. but worked as a special assistant to National Park Service Director Fran Mainella during the more than three-year negotiation between Snyder’s attorneys and the Park Service.

Snyder was "impatient" with the pace of negotiations, despite Smith's help, the report said, but it does not describe any wrongdoing on Snyder's part.

C&O Canal Park Superintendent Kevin Brandt, who has publicly stated that he was not pressured to allow the cutting, reversed his position in the report.

Brandt told investigators that Smith’s intervention had a "substantial influence" on his decisions. As a new superintendent, Brandt "wanted to be considered a ‘team player’" and was surprised to receive calls from the top echelon of the Park Service on a subject usually decided at the park level.

"[I] probably would have done things differently," if not for Smith’s influence, Brandt said in the report. "I would have arrived at a different decision."

Brandt did not respond to an interview request for this story.

Snyder cut more than 100 mature trees including at least 50 native species along with all of the trees of 6 inches diameter or less. The trees were protected by a 200-foot federal conservation easement that previous landowners signed in 1976, covering the steep slope leading down to the C&O Canal.

Although the Park Service permitted the cutting, Montgomery County found that Snyder had violated county forest conservation law. In September 2005 Snyder settled the matter by agreeing to spend $37,000 on off-site reforestation and donate a perpetual easement on five additional acres of his property, following months of negotiations with the Maryland National Park and Planning Commission.

Documents obtained from the Park Service through a Freedom of Information Act request reveal a more than three-year exchange between the Park Service and Snyder’s representatives leading up to the tree-cutting. Those negotiations began under former Superintendent Doug Faris, who died in 2004, and continued with Brandt at the helm.

In November 2001, Faris denied a request by Snyder to cut diseased trees within the easement, saying that the trees provide critical wildlife habitat. He also denied a request for an easement variance that would have allowed Snyder to build a swimming pool and deck. In January, 2002, Faris denied a cash offer of $25,000 made by Snyder through then-attorney Grayson Haynes as "mitigation" to the Park Service.

In November 2004, Brandt "suddenly agreed" to allow the cutting, the inspector general’s report stated, even though no park or park official had allowed an easement variance in the more than 30 years since they were acquired.

Smith was charged with handling high-profile issues involving special interest groups "Cabinet-level officials and Congress," according to the report.

The authors of the Department of Interior report said that Smith was "less than candid" with investigators and that he gave different accounts in two separate interviews. They contacted the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, D.C., which declined to prosecute Smith, saying the case lacked merit.

But the report tiptoes around another issue: the Park Service’s apparent violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires public notice and an environmental study before government agencies take any action—constructing a building or issuing a tree-cutting permit, for example—that might impact the environment.

The report states that the Park Service "circumvented" NEPA by citing exclusions that did not apply and failed to document its contention, which would have required a review. But it does not specifically state that officials violated NEPA.

Local activists were disappointed.

"It sounds like nobody cares. Undue influence was asserted but no prosecutorial merit? What do we get from it? Nothing," said West Montgomery County Citizens Association Vice-President Ginny Barnes, who serves on a C&O Canal task force created in the wake of the Snyder Cutting. "There’s a lot of time spent on this guy [Smith]. But I think the issue is still the same. With NEPA completely ignored, why is there not a federal violation?"

"I’m puzzled and disappointed," she said.