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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?


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.

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!

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

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:


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

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. 

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.

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.

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