Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder offered to pay the National Park Service $25,000 nearly four years ago in exchange for permission to remove trees behind his Potomac estate, according to Interior Department documents released this week.
Park Service officials denied the offer, explaining that cutting down trees in an environmentally protected area was not up for financial negotiation, the documents show. But Douglas D. Faris, who was superintendent of the C&O Canal National Historical Park at the time, added in a letter to Snyder that he could make a "general donation" to aid the Park Service, unrelated to his property.
The cash offer and Faris's response are the latest revelations in a controversy surrounding the Park Service decision last fall to allow Snyder to remove 130 mature trees from an easement he owns between the C&O Canal and his $10 million estate.
The cutting opened up Snyder's view of the Potomac River, at least temporarily, and brought claims from environmentalists that the Park Service was selling views of the river. The Interior Department's inspector general is investigating whether Park Service officials were pressured into making the deal.
Snyder's representatives launched an aggressive rebuttal yesterday to suggestions that he had received special treatment. To the contrary, Snyder believes the Park Service squeezed more than $100,000 in concessions from him, said Mike Sitrick, a spokesman for the Redskins owner.
The bottom line, Sitrick said, is that a once-tangled mess of trees -- many of which were non-native species or diseased -- have been replaced with more than 600 native saplings that will boost the long-term viability of the forest.
"In approaching this transaction, the Snyders worked very hard to ensure that whatever was done was consistent with what the Park Service wanted and what the Park Service would allow," Sitrick said. "The Snyders firmly believe that the actions that both they and the Park Service have taken will greatly benefit the entire community."
According to the Interior Department documents, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the negotiations between Snyder and the Park Service date to 2001. About that time, Snyder volunteered to pay $25,000, believing the offer complied with federal rules for land mitigation, Sitrick said.
In his January 2002 letter denying the request, Faris wrote, "We appreciate but regretfully cannot accept Mr. Snyder's generous offer of a $25,000 cash contribution as mitigation for scenic easement variance requests."
Faris, who died last year, added in his letter: "If Mr. Snyder would like to make a donation to the National Park Service, he could make such a donation through the National Park Foundation as a general donation or for a park of his choice."
A spokeswoman for the National Park Foundation said the organization, which funds park improvement projects, has not received a gift from Snyder or the Redskins in the past three years. It is unclear whether Snyder ever made a donation to an individual park.
While the 31-year-old easement that came with Snyder's estate protected trees, it allowed for the cutting of underbrush with trunks smaller than 6 inches in diameter. Still, the Interior Department documents indicate that Park Service and Montgomery County officials had urged Snyder to refrain from clearing the underbrush on his easement.
Snyder did so anyway, according to Faris's successor, Kevin D. Brandt.
Brandt then decided to negotiate with Snyder, who had requested permission to remove nonnative species from his property. Last fall, Snyder was allowed to partially clear 50,000 square feet of forested land, including some of the larger trees, but he had to replant with native saplings selected by the Park Service. He also donated additional land.
"We expect that when the project is done, more than six trees will be planted for each one that was removed," Sitrick said.
Under the agreement, the federal government one day could receive a possible share of Snyder's enhanced property value as a result of his improved river views. Snyder was to hire an appraiser to inspect his property and determine its value with the new vista.
Despite Snyder's concessions, Brandt's decision outraged some neighbors and environmentalists. Attorneys for the Audubon Naturalists Society and Potomac Conservancy said they think the Park Service violated federal law by failing to get public input before issuing the tree-clearing permit to Snyder.
The agreement has been suspended pending the outcome of Montgomery County's investigation into whether Snyder violated local forest conservation laws by removing the trees without the approval of the planning board.