A National Park Service official and environmental leaders who once backed the federal government's decision to allow Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder to remove 130 mature trees from protected land near the C&O Canal now say they are unsure it was the right decision.
The second-guessing by Kevin D. Brandt, C&O Canal National Historical Park superintendent, and the president of the Potomac Conservancy comes as Montgomery County is investigating whether the arrangement violated local laws and as Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) hosts a community forum tonight to discuss the matter.
In a first-of-its-kind agreement in the Washington region, the National Park Service allowed Snyder in November to chop the trees on a slope he owns next to the C&O Canal National Historical Park in exchange for a possible share of the enhanced value he would receive from his new river views at his Potomac estate.
The controversial arrangement, which Brandt negotiated with Snyder, angered some environmentalists and community leaders who questioned whether the Park Service was in the business of selling views of the Potomac River.
Others, including Potomac Conservancy President Matthew Logan, supported the deal initially. It included a provision that would have prevented Snyder or a future owner from clearing vegetation nearest the canal, which Logan said in March would bolster long-term conservation efforts.
"The more we have dug into this, the more concerned we have become that the best interests of the park are not being served. . . ," Logan said this week. "What I am seeing here now is the key actor probably wasn't acting in good faith."
Brandt, who also said he doesn't feel that Snyder's representatives were totally honest with him, said the terms of the arrangement are on hold until Montgomery finishes its review.
"I don't know exactly what our response might be," Brandt said. "We just have to see what their findings are, and then we will react appropriately."
Snyder, through a spokesman, declined to comment.
Under the terms of the now-suspended arrangement, Snyder was allowed to remove trees, including 20 diseased native species, from an 8.3-acre easement the federal government purchased in the 1970s. Snyder had said he wanted to remove nonnative species.
Because it could take years for new trees to replenish the deforested land, the agreement called for an appraiser to inspect Snyder's $10 million estate and determine its value with the new view. At the same time, the Park Service would calculate the value of additional easement protections it received from Snyder along with the approximately 1,300 native saplings and small trees that he planted.
If the value of the enhanced view exceeded the value of what the Park Service gained in the deal, Snyder would have donated the difference to the federal government.
"All that is on hold," Brandt said and added that he supports the concept of updating easements bordering the park.
County officials said Snyder never received permission from Montgomery County. Under the county's forest law, landowners must receive a permit before they can remove more than 5,000 square feet of trees. Snyder cleared nearly 50,000 square feet, county officials said.
As far back as 2002, local officials had told Snyder they weren't likely to grant him permission to remove the trees.
"In this location, clearing would not be permitted as part of a forest conservation management plan, if it would remove any vegetation currently providing erosion protection for the steep slopes along the river or negatively affect the scenic vistas from the river," Callum Murray, a county planner, wrote to Snyder in 2002.
Brandt said he believed Snyder had the county's permission. After the trees were removed, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission fined Snyder $1,000 and has been conducting an investigation to see whether additional penalties -- as much as a dollar per square foot of deforested land -- would be warranted.
Some community leaders, who are outraged at Snyder and the Park Service for allowing a gaping hole in the forest that separates the C&O Canal from neighboring homes, are growing frustrated by the pace of the investigation.
"We all want to move forward, to make sure this doesn't happen again," said Ginny Barnes, environmental chairman of the West Montgomery County Citizens Association.
"There is a loss of faith and a loss of trust in the entities that are supposed to protect and preserve the national park," Barnes said.
Nancy Lineman, a spokesman for the planning commission, said she expects the matter will be resolved soon.
Van Hollen, who wants to create a task force on the matter, said he hope's tonight meeting will promote greater cooperation between local and federal park officials.