Fireside Read: Worth Fighting For

Editor's note: This book was reviewed on the Traveler earlier this year. The following review, which was written for the Association of National Park Rangers and Ranger magazine, offers a somewhat different perspective. It comes from Rick Smith, a long-time Park Service employee who rose up through the ranks to become one of its top managers.

An observer not intimately familiar with the details of this story might ask: why is one of the most talented and honored rangers in the National Park Service, chief ranger in three different parks -- Chiricahua National Monument, Bryce Canyon National Park, and Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park -- now assigned as the staff park ranger for the National Capital Region, duty stationed at Antietam with no discernable duties, while still being paid as a ranger with law enforcement duties? If that makes you curious, you have to get this book to find out why. I highly recommend you do.

Last summer I reviewed the book that dealt with the investigation regarding Billy Malone, the Indian trader at Hubbell Trading Post. I said that was a hard book for me to review because of the initial botched investigation of Malone and because the author’s portrait of National Park Service culture did not ring true with my own. This book is also difficult for me to review, but for different reasons. Robert Danno’s portrait of his career in the NPS is like a travelogue of wonderful places and experiences. He worked as a seasonal in Whiskeytown, Sequoia/Kings Canyon and Grand Canyon.

In addition to the parks above, he was a permanent employee in Virgin Islands National Park, Channel Islands National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, and Yellowstone National Park. During his time as a ranger, he married his wife, Mary, they had three children, and lived a life that he describes as inspirational and exciting. He did the requisite number of rescues, dealt with medical emergencies, arrested bad guys, and assisted uncountable numbers of visitors.

He became a “ranger’s ranger,” was nominated twice for the Harry Yount Award honoring the Service's top ranger, received the Department of the Interior Valor award, and the Meritorious Service award. He speaks in awe of his assignment at Madison Junction in Yellowstone and of his pride of being a ranger in the “mother park.” This is all the stuff of a very successful career and it makes great reading.

What was difficult for me is to read what happened next, beginning in March of 2005, when Danno was notified that his work conduct at the C&O Canal was being investigated two weeks after he reported to the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility that the park superintendent was acting improperly with a boundary issue. He was stripped of his law enforcement commission, assigned to another park, all the items were removed from his office and transported to his home by park employees, including his awards, tool kits and other items that a ranger keeps in his or her office. Sometime after that, his home was raided and items were removed by the NPS (while he was out-of town). He was subsequently arrested, ordered face-down on a marina dock, and carted off in handcuffs. All this for a two-time nominee for the Harry Yount Award?

While Danno had disagreements with the acting superintendent at C&O Canal over issues related to incident command and felt that the acting superintendent’s damage assessments following Hurricane Isabel were dishonest in order to get more money for the park, the real problem was Washington Redskins billionaire owner Dan Snyder clear cutting trees on his estate to improve his view of the river.

This was a major sensation in the Washington, D.C. newspapers. According to Danno, he had consistently warned the acting superintendent that this was a violation of law and policy, and should not be allowed – which the acting superintendent was advocating. Danno now believed, that Snyder did not act on his own and that the acting superintendent gave him permission to do the cutting. Danno filed a whistle blower complaint with the DOI OIG and the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.

A year later, the OIG investigative report came out. Incredibly, it concluded that the decision to allow the tree cutting had come from the NPS Director Fran Mainellla’s office and that the special assistant to the director, Dan Smith and the now-superintendent of the C&O Canal, Kevin Brandt, had not been truthful with the investigators. It did not, however, recommend any discipline against these employees and referred the case back to the NPS for appropriate action. Yes, that’s right; they recommended that the NPS director’s office discipline itself. It is not surprising to learn that the NPS did not take any further action.

Nine months after he was arrested, Danno was indicted on one charge of theft of government property. His trial began in January, 2009. I found the sections of the book dealing with the author’s preparations for the trial and the trial itself to be fascinating. It is particularly interesting to read the account of his attorney punching holes in the testimony of the chief ranger of National Capital Region, the person who had taken the items from Danno’s office and transported them to Danno’s house, among the very items that he was now accused of stealing. It’s an incredible story! The jury found Danno not guilty in minutes. Some of the jurors waited until he left the courtroom to congratulate him.

It’s a happy ending, right? Wrong. Three-and-a-half years after the not guilty verdict, the NPS still has not taken any disciplinary action against those involved in the Snyder tree-cutting incident, nor has it restored Danno to any position of authority worthy of his experience and abilities – they just put him in a closet and let him sit.

I have known Rob Danno for 20-25 years. I have the highest regard for his honesty and integrity and the greatest respect for the variety of field ranger skills he possesses. If all he says is true, which a OIG investigative report confirms, this is another stain on the leadership of the National Park Service. I wonder how many more of these kinds of incidents have to occur before the NPS realizes that the low marks it receives in the federal Office of Personnel Management's “best places to work” surveys, especially in leadership, are fully justified?

This is a cautionary tale for those NPS employees who believe that whistle blowers will be protected from reprisal by their agency; they won’t be. It is also a look at agency behavior that is hard to imagine. While the book is well written and engrossing, at the end I was disheartened. Like Danno, I loved my career with the NPS. It is hard to believe that it has become just another government bureau. I think Horace Albright warned us about that.

Amazon Detail : Product Description
A Park Ranger Blows the Whistle on Bureaucrats and a Billionaire and Pays the Price. Worth Fighting For tells the tale of a dedicated ranger who lived up to his oath of office as a federal law enforcement officer and ultimately fell on his sword to protect park resources

Comments

Why hasn't someone higher up in the Obama administration done anything to correct this situation??

Yes, why haven't they? A very appropriate question, I believe.

the reason that no action has been taken is that the national park service higher up don't want to shake the boiat and get out of their plush offices ---beurocrats all over the world listen to and follow thw money noty there believes--

That's just plain sad, but it's also typical of most bureaucracies. Over time, they often evolve to serve themselves more than to serve the public.

Yes Zeb, the temptations to all aquiring power are there so we gotta be vigilant. The character issue has never been more important than now after a long run of afluence and self absorbtion. I've known a Deputy Director/Superintendent that qualifies.

Traveler, another excellent book review by Mr. Rick Smith. Money is power, the more money you have the greater the power, so to be prudent, weather the private sector or the public sector, one has to be careful. I agree with Rick however, in my own 40 plus years of public service, my experience was 90% positive, ethical, competent managers were the rule, not the exception. Its very unfortunate to see the anti-government politics being proclaimed by so many "so called" political leaders and the "Citizens United" court decision is making it worse by giving them the money to try to buy it all. In any case, I fully support the ranger that wrote this book, he did the right thing, but, as is usually the case, he is now the victim. The citizen, at least in my own experience, does want malfeasance exposed, but the person who does so pays a very high price in most cases. Very sad commentary on the management and politics that has allowed this to happen.

I'm still wondering exactly what role the Cheney/Bush White House played in this.

I think I'm going to get this book because I'm currently in a similar situation. I blew the whistle on someone higher up and just 2 weeks later I was accused of a criminal act. I've been removed from my position, had all my keys, badges, gov't charge card, etc. removed. I never thought this could happen in the agency I love so much and have given everything to.

Anonymous, could not help reading your comment and I am certainly no expert on the whistle blowing issue or perhaps for any great insight to advise anyone, but you may want to contact PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility). You can find there contact information on Goggle, they are a very good organization that has do much to help employees in your situation. They might be able to evaluate your situation both from a legal standpoint or a Departmental Ethics perspective. Good luck.

Thank you for the tip Ron. I wish I had known of PEER earlier, but I had no one to help or guide me in this. I have my hearing soon and hopefully this will all be dismissed.

I think this sort of thing is occurring with much greater frequency than we are aware. The parks tend to quiet this type of event, but I personally know of 2 honest and good rangers who have been removed immediately following whistleblowing and neither have had any success in returning to work.

When a ranger, who has taken their oath seriously, approaches a superior in the spirit of "let's fix these deficiencies," the logical response should not be retaliation, but that appears to be a bit of a pattern with certain managers. Incidentally, this type of retaliatory action is routinely occurring in a largerer park with a superintendent who was also a special assistant to a Director many years ago.

Until individuals and leaders in a position and with a desire to change the "company culture" of the NPS, stories such as these will continue to trickle in. Many fear that excellent staff will be lost due to this trend and I echo that concern. It is, however, very encouraging that ranger Danno and a few others are vocalizing their experiences. Bringing these deficiencies into the public light are the only way the NPS can begin to address them.

The Journal of the Association of National Park Rangers, RANGER, summer of 2012, has an excellent article by a former and highly respected NPS manager by the name of Denis Galvin. The article, "Parks and Politics" is well worth the read for all those interested in the inner workings and challenges facing our top NPS managers. One of the introductory quotes for the article is "Politics, n. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage. Ambrose Bierce, "The Devils Dictionary". Sums up pretty well what happened at C&O Canal. There is another excellent review of "Worth Fighting For" on the PJ Ryan Thunderbear website, just goggle Thunderbear and select issue 292. I think anonymous makes an excellent point, for those in public service, there is an approved ethic that must be respected and should be adhered to. More and more, this is not the case.

Hey Ron, is the article by Galvin available to non-NPS Rangers? If so where can those of us that aren't subscribers/Raangers access it? Enjoy your posts, Ron.

Anonymous, not sure I can answer your question. You can contact the association by mail at Association Of National Park Rangers, 25958 Genesse Trail Road, PMB 222. Golden, Colo. 80401 0r visit ANPR's website: www.anpr.org and go to members services page. Best wishes anonymous, yes Mr. Galvin was an outstanding public service official, his article was very educational. There was also another "Perspective", "The Essential Democracy of National Parks" by Kristen Brengel, Kristen is associated with the National Parks Conservation Association.

I guess this request is a test:).