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Snyder-Park Service Deal On Trees Not So Clear-Cut

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 18, 2004; Page B01

Logs and tree limbs litter the steep slope behind the limestone and stucco Potomac mansion of Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder. In the otherwise unbroken ribbon of forest separating his and other handsome estates from the old C&O Canal, there is suddenly a yawning gap.

Last month, to the surprise of neighbors and conservation groups, Snyder hired workers to take chain saws to several acres of woodlands, giving him a panoramic view of the Potomac from the $10 million home he bought three years ago from Queen Noor, widow of Jordan's King Hussein.

On an easement below Dan Snyder's mansion, blue tubes mark where saplings have been planted. (Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

Audubon Society officials surveyed the situation from the edges of the property Thursday, after learning from one of Snyder's neighbors that the trees had come down.

"We had a couple of people out for a holiday walk and they said, 'What in the world went on there?' " said Neal Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Audubon Naturalist Society. "I went out and saw it, and it looked dreadful."

The National Park Service, which has long had a reputation for zealously enforcing scenic easements that protect the woods along riverbanks, instead had a sympathetic -- if confusing -- reaction to Snyder's landscaping. A spokesman in Washington first said that Snyder cut the trees "by mistake" and that he failed to notify the agency.

But officials at the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park said they signed off on the logging plan after months of negotiations with Snyder's attorneys. Then the Washington official called back to recant -- Snyder did have permission, he said.

They said Snyder's case was unusual because his lot has been invaded by nonnative flora species, such as ailanthus, that the Park Service has been trying to keep out of its forests.

Their agreement with Snyder requires him to replant the hillside with native species and includes a pledge to turn his expansive yard into a no-cut zone. He already has planted dozens of three-foot-high saplings.

C&O Canal Park Superintendent Kevin D. Brandt said he recognizes that the gash in the forest left by the clear-cut is unsightly. But he said he looked at the arrangement with a long view. A decade from now, he said, the site will be markedly improved.

"We think this was in the long-term best interest of the national park," Brandt said.

The government has been far less understanding with other prominent owners of riverfront homes.

In 1992, Potomac waterbed manufacturer Isaac Fogel spent 15 days in a halfway house for unauthorized cutting. Three years earlier, James Grafton Gore Sr., a brother of former Republican activist Louise Gore, paid a six-figure fine and swore on the courthouse steps: "I'll never touch another tree so long as I live. Trust me."

Timbering on the Virginia side of the river by then-Sen. Charles S. Robb (D) prompted a Park Service investigation that ended when federal officials discovered they lacked jurisdiction.

Snyder cast the landscaping decision as long-term investment in the environment.

"Dan Snyder's motivation for this action is to ensure that the beauty and majesty of the area -- that which attracted he and his family -- is preserved both for present and future generations," said Michael Sitrick, his spokesman.

In the short term, however, the benefit is a lovely view for Snyder, and that has neighbors steamed. One neighbor, who said she would speak only on the condition of anonymity because she feared reprisals, said that he "ought to take some 300-pound lineman up there to replant some of those 30- to 40-foot trees." Others demanded answers from the Park Service.

Parks officials said they expected the backlash.

"We obviously know who Dan Snyder is, and we're sure everyone will look at this and wonder," Brandt said. "But with the nonnative species that were there, we thought this was the right decision."

Audubon's Fitzpatrick said his organization supports removal of nonnative trees, but not by clear-cutting such a large piece of land. And they still have questions about whether the removal of exotic trees was the goal, or a rationale conjured up after the fact. Audubon arborists have examined samples collected from the hillside. They found not only ailanthus, but also evidence that large, healthy oaks and sycamores came down, as well.

"Whatever the goal was, and that's still not clear to me, the Park Service should be well aware that they can pare away nonnative trees in ways that are much softer and much gentler," Fitzpatrick said. "If Mr. Snyder is really into invasive tree management, there are a whole lot of ways to do it that are more sensitive to the integrity of the park."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company