Showdown at the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

There's nothing quite as lovely as a view at the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park, as long as trees don't get in the way. NPS photo.

When Daniel Snyder, the owner of the Washington Redskins, was last mentioned in the Traveler, it had to do with some tree-cutting he had performed on a scenic easement to improve the view from his estate to the Potomac River.

Well, it's time to revisit that story, this time with a happy ending. Although it didn't always look that way. With a nod to the Shootout at the OK Corral, our Showdown at the C&O Canal involves a chief ranger who tried to do the right thing, and ended up being prosecuted by the federal government.

The First Shot

In May 2005, Chief Ranger Rob Danno informed Office of the Inspector General investigators that something corrupt was afoot along the C&O Canal. Superintendent Kevin Brandt had allowed Daniel Snyder, the billionaire owner of the Washington Redskins, to remove 130 trees on National Park Service lands held in a scenic easement after Mr. Snyder had offered to make thousands of dollars available for NPS projects.

The Investigation

The OIG discovered the following:

Daniel Snyder wanted to cut trees that were blocking the view from his mansion and was willing to pay for the privilege. In 2002, the owner of the Redskins offered $25,000 to the NPS. The superintendent of Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park at that time wrote that he could not accept this “generous offer…as mitigation for scenic easement variance requests.”

Special Assistant to NPS Director P. Daniel Smith told the OIG that his boss, then-NPS Director Fran Mainella, wanted the Snyder tree-cutting issue resolved after she attended a Redskins game with members of the Bush administration in 2003. Ms. Mainella denies Smith’s assertion.

In the spring of 2004, Mr. Smith and the new C&O superintendent, Kevin Brandt, met at Mr. Snyder’s residence to discuss a resolution to the tree-cutting issue.

Superintendent Brandt later told investigators that he was a new superintendent in 2004 and wanted to be considered a “team player” so he attended the meeting.

Well, as things played out Mr. Snyder saw that the remaining exotic and native trees on the easement were cut down in November 2004. Six months later, Chief Ranger Rob Danno notified the OIG.

The case with Mr. Snyder was not the first time Assistant Director Smith allowed trees to be removed from NPS properties to improve the views from homes owned by people with power and influence. The OIG investigation concluded that Mr. Smith had violated NPS policy and procedures when he influenced the Snyder tree removal approval through his personal communications with Mr. Snyder, his representatives, and NPS officials.

The inspector general, in a letter to Lynn Scarlet, who was Acting-Interior secretary at the time, said that his office's "investigation determined that NPS failed to follow any of its established policies and procedures outlined in the NPS Director's Handbook, and even disregarded the recommendations of their own Horticulture Advisory and Review Committee, regarding the process in which a property owner on an NPS scenic easement can cut vegetation above the allowable limit.

"Specifically, the NPS National Capital Region officials and C&O NHP employees failed to initiate the requisite environmental assessment, as required by NPS guidance, when instituting changes to an easement agreement. In addition, NPS did not complete the required paperwork detailing the reasons for granting Mr. Snyder exclusions to a Special Use Permit, which allowed him to cut vegetation beyond the allowable limit."

Despite those findings, the U.S. Attorney's Office declined to press charges against Mr. Smith, saying the case lacked "prosecutorial merit." Instead the matter was referred back to the Park Service for "appropriate action."

The “Appropriate Action” taken by the NPS

P. Daniel Smith was reprimanded in a letter. He is now the superintendent of Colonial National Historic Park. Mr. Smith would tell the Washington Post that he overstepped his discretion but did "nothing tawdry."

Kevin Brandt is still the superintendent of C&O Canal.

Dan Snyder has a much better view of the Potomac River from his residence, but the hillside where he removed the trees began to erode in 2006. Maryland officials fined Daniel Snyder $37,000 for violating county forest conservation law and ordered him to plant more trees.

Rob Danno was reassigned to the George Washington Memorial Parkway---to issue picnic permits.

Then, in 2007, a search warrant was executed on Chief Ranger Danno’s government-owned residence. Officials found the following “contraband”: an NPS drill, an NPS badge collection, a slide projector and accessories, various NPS signs, and an emergency services trauma kit.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office saw “prosecutorial merit” to the case against Chief Ranger Danno and indicted him. The NPS placed the chief ranger on unpaid status.

The Showdown at C&O Canal

During a short trial this past January, witnesses for Chief Ranger Danno’s defense testified that they also stored NPS items in their homes and vehicles and often kept medical gear in their vehicles to respond to emergencies. A former supervisor of Chief Ranger Danno testified that employees were often allowed to keep old park signs and display them inside their homes. After a three-day trial, the jury found the chief ranger innocent.

In February, Rob Danno came forward to tell his story to Christina Marnik of The Journal, of Martinsburg, West Virginia. Ranger Danno’s attorney, Peter H. Noone said, "Soon after Mr. Danno made his disclosures, he experienced a variety of administrative actions, including temporary reassignment, investigation, frivolous administrative charges, Board of Inquiry, suspension, isolation, permanent reassignment and criminal charges."

Mr. Noone adds that, “Mr. Danno's protected disclosures to the DOI Inspector General were confirmed to be truthful, accurate and instrumental in assisting with the government's investigation, as well as in assuring the protection of NPS resources…Mr. Danno's protected disclosures (showed) dedication to its agency resources ... and we believe that he should have been embraced for his courage to come forward.”

Rob Danno is making his story public in an effort to hold the NPS accountable.

I’m hearing the theme song from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Are you?

Comments

This is typical of how the entire federal government functions.

Thank God that there are rangers who put the protection of the resource and the principles of the service ahead of personal comfort and ambition.

Thank God that there are rangers who put the protection of the resource and the principles of the service ahead of personal comfort and ambition.

Unfortunately that usually spells the end of their influence and career. As long as the federal government is in charge this will be the way business is run and the "go along, get along" attitude of the tenured bureaucracy will prevail----always to the detriment of the resources in question.

Why would anyone think that the C & O Canal would be run any differently than the Treasury Dept. or the Postal Service? Is the way that fat cat Synder was treated any different than what the executives of AIG or Goldman Sachs got from their insider bureaucrats and legislators? The continued illusions many of you have about how the NPS is somehow different than all of the other sludgy muck found oozing out of the halls of DC is nothing short of idiocy.

It's time for real change, but as I've said before, I won't be holding my breath.

Beamis, I suggest that you do hold your breath. Your constant negative flow never seems to offer any constructive in put on NPT. Nothing personal, just wondering why you can't be a little more up-lifting in your comments. Yes, be the devils advocate with some constructive points behind it.

Just calling it like I see it and experienced it for 10 years as an agency permanent employee.

My constructive suggestion, as I've made many times before, is to take the parks out of the purview of the U.S. federal government and put them into the hands of non-profit private trusts. Take the politics and careerism out of vital land management decision making.

By the way, would you say the same thing about someone, like me, who sees nothing to be gained from fighting bloody unjust wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Or the bailout of worthless criminals on Wall Street? Is it unduly negative to point out the waste and moral bankruptcy of such policies without coming up with something positive to say just to make sure I'm being fair to all involved?

When something is terribly wrong it's pretty hard to put anything but your intellectual integrity and base gut level instincts to work. What do you think I should have pointed out that is positive in this particular story? That someone with honest integrity and grit was pilloried and harassed due their extremely galling temerity in revealing the truth? That he was hounded by career bureaucrats for defending the resources he had taken so seriously to defend?

Wake up y'all. This ship is going down! Re-arrange the deck chairs all you want but the truth is staring at us quite plainly: the days of the American Imperium are at an end. If you care about the parks it's time to look for other containers to put them in besides the morally and financially bankrupt hands of the corrupt and self-serving madarins on the Potomac.

Nuff said?

Positively truthful enough for ya?

I watched many careers at a regional office diminished or destroyed on the altar of affirmative action and political correctness. The central figure in that case remained in place for many years while WASO fiddled. Why should I be surprised that a resource defender gets crucified by influential neighbors and inept management at a park. Teresa Chambers is another NPSer suffering because she dared to tell the truth. So sad. I had a long and honorable career tarnished by this BS. So glad I'm out of it.

Thank you, HH for the article. I would claim surprise, but that would be a surfeit in prevarication.

Thanks also to NPT for its "effort to hold the NPS accountable."

I could detail numerous parallel anecdotes, but predictably, the following comments would scold me for not understanding that incompetence and corruption are everywhere, and it's not the system's fault that there are "a few bad apples".

Or, like Beamis, I would be labeled "negative" or criticized for not being "more up-lifting".

Such attempts to obfuscate the real issue--that the federal government is morally and financially bankrupt--stifle real, positive change. Each passing day represents a squandered opportunity to remove the responsibility for protecting national parks from the purview a political, bloated, wasteful, corrupt, bureaucratic, and highly dysfunctional "system".

The truth is out, though, and like a virus, it's difficult to suppress.

As an American I greatly appreciate our parks for the beauty they possess and the recreation they provide us all. This story, however, hits home with more reality than I can stomach. As a marketing guy in the beverage world, I thought this just happened in the movies. I'm a guy that grew up with Rob going through high school and college and hearing about all the awards and lives that he has saved - I figured he would be our next leader of the Dept of the Interior. There would be no finer candidate than Rob Danno for this position. He loves the parks and this country more than I can describe. I can only hope that somehow this nightmare has a good ending for Rob, his family and the Parks. As for that Snyder character, I can't print what he deserves. It is a true shame that green paper can destroy a man's life work, career and dedication. But knowing Rob for over 35 years, he won't be laying down anytime soon...

Your bros still have your back Rob.

Beamis suggests:

"My constructive suggestion, as I've made many times before, is to take the parks out of the purview of the U.S. federal government and put them into the hands of non-profit private trusts. Take the politics and careerism out of vital land management decision making."

If the parks are in the hands of non-profit private trusts, will that take "politics and careerism" out of decision making?

I work for a non-profit. Careerism is rampant here. It is at every non-profit organization, at every for-profit organization, and at every governmental organization I've ever known. I am not criticizing my organization or any other organization ... I'm simply pointing out the facts.

Decisions at my organization are influenced by politics. They're influenced by money, by fads, by personalities, by the appearance of the person making the suggestion. (Yes! Suggestions made by beautiful young women are more likely to be adopted than suggestions made by me. Suggestions made by wealthy donors are more likely to be adopted than suggestions made by me. Does this astound anyone?)

But in my organization, there is no Inspector General to go to. Employees who complain are not reassigned, they are fired.

While decisions made by the government are influenced by the desires of the wealthy, decisions made by non-profits are dominated by the desires of the wealthy.

I agree with Bemis that the NPS is imperfect. But his suggested remedy will magnify -- not rectify -- those imperfections.

Even though the NPS has to go through Whistleblower training, they break the law and punish the whistle blowers. I was accused of not being a "team player" and had bad references given by one park where I worked. I had turned in a coworker of mine for having "relations" with her LE boyfriend in an historic house. She got to keep her job and I had this poor reputation follow me for a few years.

I have known Rob for over 20 years since his time as a CR in southeast Arizona. He is a man of utmost character and there is good reason to pay federal tax every year.

So, after all of this, what has ultimately happened to the NPS career of Ranger Danno? Has his record been expunged of this retribution? Has he regained responsibilities for more than picnic reservations? He sounds like the sort of fellow we would want to reward.

Rangers, Ranger. A Chief Ranger who fell on his sword for the resource, and was persecuted for it. There's hope for the NPS ranger afterall.

Two of us just bicycled Cumberland to Washington, D.C. 184.5 miles. Tenth trip down the canal towpath. Left Cumberland May 20th. (2012)

************* Never had so much as a flat tire before. *************

This time, our National Park Service has spread some sort of thin shale pieces over the towpath. Heavy vehicles seem to turn the stuff into sharp slices able to flatten the best of tires and tubes. We had a dozen or more flat tires....Sliced two brand new tires beyond repair... also had two blowouts...stopped and helped so many folks stranded with flats that we lost count of the stops to aid folks.

Dear National Park Service - didn't you even think of the consequences of putting a layer of unknown stuff down on a well used bicycle trail ? It will take eternity to once again make the trail safe for bicyclists. I live up the hill above lock house 8 on the canal, and this morning a lady was walking her bicycle past my home....front tire flat. She had no spare, no tools, and was six miles from her home.....walking her bicycle back home. C'mon you folks - - - you are supposed to be out there HELPING us enjoy our National Park - so please EMAIL ME and tell me what you are intending to do so I may once again bicycle the towpath without having to change and patch tires all day long? Reed Martin

Reed -

Sounds like a problem that needs to be addressed. You'll find phone, mail and e-mail contact information for the park headquarters at the following link. I'd suggest you send this information right to the park:

http://www.nps.gov/choh/contacts.htm

all was performed under the "best available science"...

I second Mark's words. This is a travesty of justice. Rob many support and stand with you. I am spreading your story! Your old friend from High school knows and remembers your strengths, honesty, and integrity. Well done!

I just finished reading Rob Danno's book the other day (finally) and today I found this on the NPS Digest:

C&O Canal NHP – On April 18, 1989, a federal judge sentenced a 45-year-old resident of Potomac, Maryland, to 15 days in jail and fined him $20,000 for cutting down 138 trees in the park in order to get a view of the Potomac River. He’d been convicted earlier in the year of destruction of government timber and disposing of government property. He’d bought his house in Potomac in 1982. Despite discussions with the park about what timber could be cut down and what couldn’t be removed, he went ahead and hired a tree service company in 1985 to cut down the trees, valued at more than $30,000. He and his wife later listed the house and four acres for sale, advertising it as having a river view. The man was also ordered to serve two years’ probation and perform 300 hours of community service.

Apparently this guy was not a billionaire owner of a football team and buddy of a President.