Parks Official Is Blamed In Snyder Tree Cutting

Blue plastic tubes surround seedlings planted on a hillside between Daniel M. Snyder's Potomac estate and the C& O Canal after 130 trees were cut down in 2004.
Blue plastic tubes surround seedlings planted on a hillside between Daniel M. Snyder's Potomac estate and the C& O Canal after 130 trees were cut down in 2004. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 19, 2006

A high-ranking National Park Service official improperly helped Washington Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder broker a deal to cut down more than 130 trees on a hillside between his Potomac estate and the C&O Canal, according toa report by the Interior Department inspector general's office.

The 2004 decision should have been left to park biologists and horticulturists, who had advised against the deal on federally protected land, and should have been opened to public debate, the report says. After an eight-month investigation, the office concluded that P. Daniel Smith, then special assistant to the director of the Park Service, intervened to help clear Snyder's view of the Potomac River.

The report does not accuse Snyder of doing anything improper when he got permission to clear 50,000 square feet of mature trees and replace them with saplings. But it does suggest that he had access to top Park Service officials that other citizens might not have had.

Smith pressured lower-level officials to approve a deal that disregarded federal environmental laws, harmed the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park and left the agency vulnerable to charges of favoritism, according to the unsigned report, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post.

Smith -- now superintendent of Colonial National Historical Park, which includes Historic Jamestowne and Yorktown Battlefield -- said in an interview that he received a letter of reprimand last month for "overstepping his discretion" but did "nothing tawdry."

"It was a legitimate request by a landowner who had a legitimate issue with the Park Service," Smith said.

Snyder issued a brief comment through a spokesman yesterday, saying he and his representatives "negotiated a fair written agreement with the National Park Service. They didn't put pressure on anyone."

In previous interviews, Snyder's representatives said he was trying to rid his property of invasive species, such as ailanthus and paulownia. He has said he spent about $100,000 to replace a once-tangled mess of trees, many of which were nonnative species or diseased, with more than 600 native saplings that will boost the long-term viability of the forest.

The Park Service's horticulturist, however, told the inspector general that clearing the area made it more likely that nonnative, invasive species would eventually flourish on the hillside and cause erosion.

The report, to be made public today, says Smith "unduly influenced the decision" by "inserting himself into the process through personal communications with Mr. Snyder, his representatives and C&O Canal officials." The inspector general referred its findings to the U.S. attorney's office, which declined to prosecute, according to the report.

Smith's job was to handle special projects for Fran P. Mainella, the Park Service director, including topics of "intense interest from the public, special interest groups, Cabinet level officials and Congress," the report says.

Mainella declined to comment, but her office issued a statement saying it would not comment on Smith's role because it was a personnel matter. The "outcome of what was done on the easement property will show it will best benefit the C&O Canal National Historical Park and best benefit the visitor," the statement said.

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