Worth Fighting For

Did the National Park Service blame messenger Chief Ranger Robert Danno for the message he brought to the Interior Department's Inspector General?

That's a hard question that invites exploration in the case of Mr. Danno, a career Park Service ranger with an impressive resume. He seemingly has been exiled by the agency for blowing the whistle on superiors who ignored well-established federal laws and agency policies and procedures in allowing a billionaire to chop down trees in a scenic easement along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park.

Sadly, following an impressive career in which he continued to climb the ladder, and nearly 8 years after Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder had workers clear roughly 2 acres of his land overlooking the Potomac River and the historical park, Mr. Danno has been living in an administrative purgatory. He's been busted from his chief ranger's position and, at one point, assigned to approving picnicking permits and, at another, given an office with virtually no tasks.

Have those who authorized the tree-clearing been reprimanded?

That's hard to know, as the Park Service has declined to discuss the matter. But Kevin Brandt, the superintendent at Chesapeake and Ohio who permitted the cutting and was Mr. Danno's direct superior, still holds that position. And Dan Smith, then the special assistant to National Park Service Director Fran Mainella, who played a significant role in seeing that Mr. Brandt authorized the cutting, was promoted shortly thereafter to superintendent of Colonial National Historical Park.

Of course, the true story of a complex political controversy like this may never be fully known, or it may be different from different perspectives—but the bulk of the evidence in this case seems to paint a disturbing picture that deserves answers, not stonewalling.

As Mr. Danno outlines the case against him in Worth Fighting For, A Park Ranger's Unexpected Battle Against Federal Bureaucrats And Washington Redskins Owner Dan Snyder, he drew the ire of his boss, Superintendent Brandt, for trying to follow the letter of Park Service regulations -- and the law -- on an array of issues that arose at C&O Canal.

The ranger alleges that the superintendent vastly exaggerated the amount of damage Hurricane Isabel did to the historical park in September 2003 to bolster his budget with rehabilitation dollars; took umbrage that Mr. Danno would question during a staff meeting his handling of the hurricane preparations; and was angered by Mr. Danno's opposition to letting Mr. Snyder illegally cut down trees on his property that lay within the park's scenic easement.

The friction between superintendent and chief ranger grew, and led to a number of administrative actions that, Mr. Danno writes, became ongoing. If he was cleared of one charge, another arose.

Those charges ranged widely. One asserted he failed to respond to another ranger's aid on a traffic stop—but dispatch recordings purportedly showed that wasn't the case at all, that Mr. Danno offered to respond but was told he didn't need to. Another charged that he failed to appoint an acting-chief ranger in his absence. In that case, writes Mr. Danno, he actually named two acting chiefs, and the matter didn't surface as a perceived concern until more than a year after the fact ... and after he made his protected whistleblower disclosures.

After the chief ranger approached Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility about his concerns over the tree-cutting, his relationship with Superintendent Brandt went from bad to worse.

Just two weeks after making my disclosures to PEER, two regional law enforcement officers came to my office and delivered a letter from Kevin Brandt informing me that I had been temporarily reassigned to another park, my law enforcement commision was being suspended, and an internal investigation was being launched into my work conduct," writes Mr. Danno. The two officers were to relieve me of my badge, gun, keys, and cell phone, escort me out of the office, and remove all of my personal and professional items from my office and patrol car to my home, including my work tools and other kits and equipment as well as my files, my awards, and the collection of ranger badges I kept on display there.

Amid my confusion, anger, and the overwhelming sinking feeling of being treated like a criminal, I realized what was going on. Brandt was playing hardball, and he was taking the offensive. He wasn't going to wait to be officially notifed that someone had blown the whistle. Instead, he was going to pursue the time-honored wrongdoers' strategy: kill the messenger. By discrediting me before I could blow the whistle, my allegations would carry less weight. I would be a disgruntled and troubled employee seeking revenge.

Perhaps most prominent in the public record in this case is a substantive 2006 investigative report into the matter from the Interior Department's Office of Inspector General.

That document stated that Superintendent Brandt violated the National Environmental Policy Act requirements in permitting the clearing of roughly 2 acres of land that, though technically owned by Mr. Snyder, carried Park Service scenic easements.

Additionally, the OIG's 19-page report outlined what was described as pressure from Mr. Smith on Superintendent Brandt and the historical park's lands coordinator to allow the cutting to proceed.

Superintendent Brandt, during an interview with OIG staff, "advised that Smith's involvement had a substantial impact on how he made his decisions concerning the Snyder tree-cutting issue."

In relating what he concluded to be an "unprecedented decision" to allow the cutting, then-Inspector General Earl Devaney wrote 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..."

And yet Mr. Danno, who raised these concerns with those higher up in the Park Service, seems to have been the only one punished in the case. And that leads one to wonder not only if those who allowed the tree cutting were punished in any fashion, but why Mr. Danno was targeted at all?

National Park Service officials have been silent on the case. When asked to comment on whether any administrative actions were taken against Superintendent Brandt or Superintendent Smith in the wake of the OIG investigation, or whether it was unusual for Mr. Smith to be promoted to superintendent after this matter, Park Service spokesman David Barna said the matter was still under investigation. For what he didn't say.

Mr. Barna also was silent on why the Park Service, after a federal court jury found Mr. Danno innocent on a charge of theft of government property (the property from Mr. Danno's office, including historic ranger badges that were given to him by a curator at the Park Service's curatorial facility in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, in an official exchange for some of his service uniforms), cited that alleged theft in December 2010 when it notified him that it planned to fire him outright.

More than anything this case needs some sunshine.

* Was it a conflict of interest for the Park Service to assign Lisa Mendelson, at the time Director Mainella's chief of staff and now a deputy regional director for the National Capital Region and, as such, Supertintendent Brandt's superior, to preside over a hearing into Mr. Brandt's various charges against Mr. Danno?

* Why did William Reynolds, the regional chief ranger in the National Capital Region, not question Mr. Danno to get his version of events when a man who rented a barn and pasture on Mr. Danno's property, and who was in arrears on his rent and received an eviction notice, two hours later reported to the Park Service that Mr. Danno was in possession of stolen government property and had threatened him?

* What made Mickey Fern, a deputy Park Service director and long-time friend of Mr. Danno's wife, talk to the ranger about his case and then, according to Mr. Danno, abruptly end contact?

* Why did Philip A. Selleck, the associate regional director for operations and education in the National Capital Region of the Park Service, cite Mr. Danno's possession of the historic badges as a basis for ousting him from the Park Service after the jury found him innocent of any wrongdoing?

Today's highly litigious society perhaps is part of the reason the Park Service is staying mum on this case. After all, another whistle blower—U.S. Park Police Chief Teresa Chambers—fought long and hard after she was busted by the Mainella administration for speaking publicly about how staff cuts within the Park Police could impact public safety. She was eventually reinstated with years of back pay.

But in cases such as Ms. Chambers and Mr. Danno's, the Park Service's deafening silence can't help but make one think the agency is pulling in the ranks rather than admitting it erred—or even explaining how such situations occur. But then, the agency in the past has been criticized for its insular tendencies and refusal to hear outside criticisms.

Nevertheless, this case must be making top officials in the Park Service and Interior Department particularly uncomfortable. Earlier this year, it was Ranger Danno who delivered the eulogy at the funeral of Margaret Anderson, a ranger who was gunned down in Mount Rainier National Park on New Year's Day.

Also attending the funeral were Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Park Service Director Jon Jarvis. What must they have thought of the ranger given that honor, one whom was deemed to sully the "public perception of NPS," as Mr. Selleck wrote in December 2010 when he notified Mr. Danno that he was being fired?

In Worth Fighting For, Mr. Danno, who continues to fight to have his name cleared and his law enforcement status reinstated, paints a compelling case that he was the victim of political retribution and whistleblower reprisal. He was busted in rank, had his house searched while he was on the other side of the country, and handcuffed at a public dock by U.S. Park Police in SWAT gear for, in his opinion, trying to see that his superiors adhered to Park Service regulations and environmental laws.

This autobiographical book not surprisingly paints Mr. Danno in a highly flattering way, so much so that he appears to be a model ranger. Scattered throughout the book are numerous photos from his career, which has stretched over three decades. He's seen involved in rescues in Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, dangling from ropes while training for search-and-rescue missions, helping transport some of the first wolves involved in Yellowstone's wolf recovery program in the mid-1990s, and escorting conservationist Mardy Murie to a meeting with President Bill Clinton. There's also a picture of a newspaper clipping describing a reunion Ranger Danno had with an exchange student from Mexico whom he saved from a mudslide that trapped him and his family in their truck.

Don't we want our rangers to be upstanding exemplars of protecting both the parks and the people who come visit?

What makes this book so disconcerting is that it comes close on the heels of two other books—The Soul of Yosemite: Finding , Defending, And Saving The Valley's Sacred Wild Nature, and Billy Malone And The National Park Service Investigation At Hubbell Trading Post—that portray the Park Service as an agency that seemingly has strayed from not only its responsibility when it comes to preservation of natural, historical, and cultural resources, but also from fairness.

Are these three books 180 degrees off the mark, or is there something wrong in the Park Service?

What is difficult to reconcile is the silence out of the director's office. It wasn't quite three years ago that Director Jarvis cautioned his 20,000-odd employees to maintain the highest ethical behavior as they go about their tasks:


The public has placed its trust in us to carry out the mission of the Service in preserving the natural and cultural resources of the national park system and in all of our external programs and partner activities (local, State, National and international). It is important that we take this responsibility seriously and perform our duties in a way that fosters high ethical standards.

Mr. Danno took his responsibilities seriously. He seems to have been punished for doing so. For an administration that professes transparency and insists on the highest ethical behavior, both seem missing in this case.

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

Wow.

This sort of story about the National Park Service high priesthood is becoming depressingly familiar. I'd bet there are at least a dozen similar stories for each that sees the light of day. Hats off to Ranger Danno for his persistence and courage!

More and more, NPS management is displaying unmistakable cultlike characteristics. The following indicators and concluding quote are snipped from:
http://www.prem-rawat-talk.org/forum/uploads/CultCharacteristics.htm

The group has authoritariansim without meaningful accountability.
The group is elitist and has a special mission.
The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality.
There is no tolerance for questions or critical inquiry; questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
There is no meaningful financial disclosure regarding budget or expenses.
Members need to ask permission for major decisions.
Members may be underpaid or unpaid, and work in unsafe environments.
There are excessive demands on the time and energy of group members.
Members are physically and/or psychologically isolated from society.
There is strong behavioral control of where, how and with whom the member lives and associates with; what clothes, colors, hairstyles the person wears, etc.
Former members often relate the same stories of abuse and reflect a similar pattern of grievances.

"If a group has more than half of the cult characteristics in any of the lists, then you should be concerned."

Double Wow.....ugly stuff, really hope this gets resolved.

Sound like the making of a great documentary for whistleblowing, like "Erin Brockovich"! I wonder how many favors were given, and cash was passed along in the process. What a shame to taint this good man's honor!

Rob Danno was and is an exceptional National Park Ranger. All who worked with and for Rob know his high standards, complete honesty and total commitment to the true mission of the National Park Service. It is difficult to understand why such an outstanding employee would be treated in this fashion and why the NPS is not able to apologize and correct this situation quickly and honestly.

It would be especially interesting to see how much pressure may have been exerted on top NPS officials from the Bush/Cheney White House.

But that still leaves the question as to why the current inhabitant of that address hasn't done anything about it. If he knows of it.

How are National Park Service employees expected to maintain the "Highest ethical standards", as exhorted by Park Service Director Jarvis, when he himself refuses to correct this obvious and appalling situation? The statement by NPS Public (Mis)Information officer David Barna that he can't comment because Danno is still under investigation (ie: being harassed) 8+ years after his whistleblower disclosure has to be the joke of the year.

I worked in National Capital Region for many years, all I can say is that it happen in most regions of the service. If one belonged to the choosen group they got away with the bank. everyhing from credit card fraud to unauthorized use of park vehicles to just showing up for work when they felt like it and still collected a 40 hr paycheck. As one of my supervisors told me many times "Nothing ever changes". I survived 35 years in NPS by keeping my head down and not make waves. Someone at Regional level that I would probably be safe, because I know where the skeletions were buried in my park and didn't stir up the crap.

Sounds like its time to contact our representatives and ask for action on this matter.

As a now retired career (33 + years) federal employee from a different agency, let me state that this type of thing is not limited to the NPS by any means. It is 'usual practice' to fire, demote, or 'shunt sideways' whistleblowers by the people in the 'Ivory Tower', as we used to call them in the agency I worked for. And the 'wrong-doer' for lack of a better (polite) word is usually promoted or given a cash award. Whistleblower protection in the federal government is a joke. I personally saw a fine, extremely knowledgeable colleague lose his job over blowing the whistle on a member of mangement's unethical practices, things that actually hurt the clients we were there to help, but made the manager and therefore the agency 'look good' statistics-wise. Try as we (his coworkers) all might, we could not save him, and we all put our jobs on the line trying. What happened to the member of management? She was promoted to the 'Ivory Tower' to get her out of our office and has she has steadily risen since then. The whole experience turned me from loving my job and respecting the agency I worked for to counting the days til I could retire. And I did, as soon as I had ' 55 and 30'.

After reading the book, I strongly believe Robert Danno is a National Park Service (NPS) hero. I live in Yorktown, Virginia, where Superintendent Dan Smith is in charge of Colonial National Historic Park (CNHP). ... He recently decided to not issue a 4th of July permit because in Yorktown of the 'risk' of lightning strikes that might occur in future years on this date. Under pressure from citizens and York County government who were willing to take on 'all' responsibility for the ceremonies. Superintendent Smith signed off on the permit. Also he is not allowing anyone to approach the Victory Monument on July 4th, the monument which symbolizes the Victory at Yorktown, when the British General Cornwallis surrendered. This 30 years fireworks event is headed for disaster as we must stay away from NPS property. The town parade cannot use the Main Street as it is bounded by NPS property. The Superintendent wants the celebration to fail. Additionally, he removed me from the volunteer list because I was critical of certain matters he was not taking care of. My 4th great grandfather, Thomas Nelson, Jr., signed the Declaration of Independence, the 3rd Governor of Virgina, Brig. General in charge of the militia, and gave his fortunes for liberty. I am not allowed now to volunteer in his home, a NPS property. Superintendent Smith was rewarded by the National Park Service by giving him his first superintendent job when he reached retirement age at CNHP. ... Don't take my word for it and read the book. The sooner Superintendent Smith retires, the better off we will be in Yorktown.

This comment was edited. -- Ed.

Those with the most money control the government agancies... This is just another fine example of how special interest groups and in thei case individuals sway the rules to their favor.

Kurt--Great article! Thank you for bringing this to the forefront. I worked with Rob on and off for a year on a park art project when he was at Bryce. He is indeed an exceptional ranger and was a pleasure to work with. Eventually, money talks, I've learned; and it's a shame people in high places in our park system are not immune to this. I worked seven years for the service as a seasonal in the 1970s and after the Nixon era, many rangers were laterally transfered in from other agencies with no understanding of the park service, beginning with the Ron Walker tenure. This, I feel was the beginning of the end for the parks as we knew it. About 6 months ago, I had breakfast with Gary Everhart, my superintendent then, and later director, and we agreed that these years were the last and best of the service. Wish we could get this back. Jon?

This is sickening, but hardly suprising.

Heads should roll up high, these people should never hold another position of trust in the Gov.

Folks, please be careful with your comments. We don't want to libel anyone.

This is a frightening story and all too familiar in the NPS nowadays. I call it the Ken Burns effect. Jarvis and the rest of his gang took the surge in goodwill following the airing of his National Parks series and manipulated it to their full advantage. Here in the Smokies we are seeing the same pattern of deceit, manipulation and targeting of opponents to park policies with regard to the backcountry fee proposal slated to begin next year. Since this agency has no oversight mechanism you see good will squandered and squashed by the abuses of power of those within the agency.

Kurt said it above, but all of us who comment on Traveler need to remember that just because we disagree with a decision, it doesn't automatically mean the person who made it is a dishonest crook or creep. Some may be, but this probably isn't the proper place for trying to expose them.

If that is necessary, perhaps it would be best for everyone if a complaint was lodged with some organization like PEER.

And many of you may know that some of my comments have not been very charitable. But I do try to recognize the line that shouldn't be crossed. (I hope I haven't actually crossed it.) We all need to try to keep our emotions out of this and lay out facts without causing any hurt for anyone -- or ourselves.

As a former NPS employee I am disgusted, but unfortunately not surprised by this situation. While I truly believe that NPS LE Rangers are the finest people I've ever had the pleasure to work with, Park management on the other hand is a mixed bag. Too often high level management positions are awarded to incompentent people who have screwed up somewhere else and get rewarded for their failure.

The federal whistleblower law is a joke, if you want to ruin your life, just blow the whistle.

Lee Dalton: So what would be an answer on how to open up this dark side of NPS Leadership that certainly is not an isolated incident? Behind the banner of "Environmental Stewards" the realities don't often paint a very good picture of service to the citizens and the resource. How can character and virtue trickle down to the troops or rather, trickle up when leaders such as in this case and others that I'm aware of, use underlings carreers as hostage? Not isolated to NPS but in the spirit of problem solving what would be your suggfestion(s)?

Fidicuary trusts are our only hope.

I find it very interesting to come on this site and find so many issues with Kevin Brandt. He is a highly incompetent weasel and I have the other side of his dirt regarding the Dan Snyder tree cutting scandal. He seized my property and everything I owned after putting nearly $200k into a historic property and provided fraudulent paperwork to the Federal Courts in an effort to conceal his fraud...The courts ultimately relied on his fraudulent document and ruled in his favor as he had seized all of my computers and paperwork...and it all just disappeared. Erased my life existence and then failed to produce the documents during discovery process.

I filed for FOIA and they subsequently sent me a bill for $148,189 (cost of locating and producing my documents they seized from my home) and gave me 20 days to pay or my FOIA request would be, and ultimately was dismissed. Book will be released in coming months called Spin Justice... and tells the whole story and how dirty this piece of crap really is....

Accountability has gone out the window. Character in those that are suppose to serve the public's interest seems to be on the wane, in all sectors. Just give it up and be accountable. Much less of a burden. Spin justice is right. Seems simple.