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Politics Trump Parks


    As the saying goes, it's not what you know, but who you know. That seems to be the case in two matters where the politically connected apparently got off with slaps on the wrist -- rather weak slaps at that -- for damaging national park resources.
    In one case you have Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, who cut down more than a few trees along an easement between his Potomac River estate and the Chesapeake & Ohio National Historic Park so he would have a better view of the river. Never mind that C&O officials didn't exactly followed proper channels to approve the logging.
    And then there's a real estate developer who destroyed some Confederate breastworks in the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and, through his political connections, was able to substantially reduce his fines.

    Back in August I posted a piece on Dan Snyder's efforts to remove trees that were impeding his view of the Potomac. The story goes back four or five years by now, back to when Snyder approached Park Service officials with an offer of $25,000 in return for cutting down the trees. At the time, Park Service officials said thanks, but no thanks.
    But then, in the fall of 2004, Snyder began clearing brush from the viewshed in question, and Park Service officials reacted by negotiating a deal under which he could clear brush and as many as 130 mature trees.
    Well, some watchdog groups didn't like the way that deal was handled and appealed.
    According to a story in the Washington Post, Park Service officials initially said Snyder had the trees cut down by mistake, then changed their tune and said approval was given because the easement in question was covered with non-native species. Never mind that other prominent landowners had been fined in the past for clearing trees to improve their views.
    Plus, according to the Post's story, arborists from the Audubon Society went to the site that was cleared and discovered that not only were non-native species cut down, but so were a few native species, such as sycamores and oaks. And they weren't mere saplings, they were big, mature trees, according to the society.

    Look What DOI's Inspector General Discovered

    So suspect was the deal that the Interior Department's inspector general took a look and decided that a high-ranking Park Service official improperly helped Snyder gain approval for the clear cutting. According to the report, not in the 30 years since the Park Service took control of the C&O Canal has the agency ever modified the terms and conditions that apply to 194 easements connected with the canal until Mr. Snyder negotiated his deal.
    "Our investigation determined 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, regarding the process in which a property owner on an NPS scenic easement can cut vegetation above the allowable limit," the inspector general said in a letter to acting-Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett.
    "Specifically, the NPS National Capital Region officials and C&O NHP employees failed to initiate the requisite environmental assessment, as required by NPS guidance, when instituting changes to an easement agreement. In addition, NPS did not complete the required paperwork detailing the reasons for granting Mr. Snyder exclusions to a Special Use Permit, which allowed him to cut vegetation beyond the allowable limit."
    You have to love those running the NPS these days. While the inspector general's investigation said that P. Daniel Smith, at the time a special assistant to NPS Director Fran Mainella, used "undue influence" to push through the permit and even changed his story during the investigation in a manner that cost the government time and money, the U.S. attorney's office declined to prosecute him for providing false statements to the investigators.

    And what did the Park Service do with Mr. Smith? Why, they promoted him, of course. These days he's superintendent of the Colonial National Historic Park.   

Meanwhile, Over at the Battlefield

    OK, enough tree-cutting. Let's take a look at how officials handled the destruction of Confederate breastworks at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. There actually were two instances of breastworks being overrun by NTS Development Co., a Kentucky-based company that was building "Fawn Lake," a golf course community with 1,400 luxury condominiums next to the military park.
    The first occurred in 1999  when about 100 feet of breastworks were destroyed. According to Public Employees for Environmental Ethics, that case was resolved with NTS Development paying $60,000 to settle a $96,000 claim brought by the Park Service.
    Not a bad settlement. For the developer, that is.
    Why would the Park Service essentially leave $36,000 on the table? Perhaps, as PEER suggests, it had to do with the intervention of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell. You see, Brian Lavin, the president and CEO of NTS Development, in the past had contributed to Sen. McConnell's campaign.
    Anyway, during the summer of 2001 a Park Service ranger discovered that about a half-acre of breastworks had been damaged, again by NTS workers.
    This time, however, Lavin apparently needed more support to resolve the matter. According to PEER, Sen. McConnell once again came to Lavin's aid, and brought Don Murphy -- yes, THAT Don Murphy, the deputy director of the NPS -- to the table. It turns out that not only is Murphy a homeowner in the Fawn Lake development, but his property is adjacent to the damaged breastworks. Conflict of interest? Hmmm, what do you think?
    To make a long story shorter, objections by NPS staff over how negotiations over this second fine were to be handled, as well as the filing by PEER of two Freedom of Information requests "to uncover the details of NTS's longstanding resistance to accepting liability," prompted Murphy to step aside from the negotiations. In the end, the matter was concluded last December when NTS agreed to a fine of $88,300.
    "This is a textbook case of political string-pulling to impede protection of our heritage resources," says Jeff Ruch, PEER's executive director. "Only the threat of exposure caused the cockroaches to scuttle, allowing a watered-down approximation of justice to occur."
   If you're interested in perusing some of the documentation in this case, you can look here, here,here, here, here, here, here, and here.

    Yes, as these sad stories relate, you definitely need friends in high places if you're going to play hardball with the federal government and come out ahead. Sadly, the folks who are supposed to be looking out for the best interests of the national park system from time to time look the other way. 

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