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Worth Fighting For

Author : Robert M. Danno
Published : 2012-03-03

Did the National Park Service blame messenger Chief Ranger Robert Danno for the message he brought to the Interior Department's Inspector General?

That's a hard question that invites exploration in the case of Mr. Danno, a career Park Service ranger with an impressive resume. He seemingly has been exiled by the agency for blowing the whistle on superiors who ignored well-established federal laws and agency policies and procedures in allowing a billionaire to chop down trees in a scenic easement along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park.

Sadly, following an impressive career in which he continued to climb the ladder, and nearly 8 years after Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder had workers clear roughly 2 acres of his land overlooking the Potomac River and the historical park, Mr. Danno has been living in an administrative purgatory. He's been busted from his chief ranger's position and, at one point, assigned to approving picnicking permits and, at another, given an office with virtually no tasks.

Have those who authorized the tree-clearing been reprimanded?

That's hard to know, as the Park Service has declined to discuss the matter. But Kevin Brandt, the superintendent at Chesapeake and Ohio who permitted the cutting and was Mr. Danno's direct superior, still holds that position. And Dan Smith, then the special assistant to National Park Service Director Fran Mainella, who played a significant role in seeing that Mr. Brandt authorized the cutting, was promoted shortly thereafter to superintendent of Colonial National Historical Park.

Of course, the true story of a complex political controversy like this may never be fully known, or it may be different from different perspectives—but the bulk of the evidence in this case seems to paint a disturbing picture that deserves answers, not stonewalling.

As Mr. Danno outlines the case against him in Worth Fighting For, A Park Ranger's Unexpected Battle Against Federal Bureaucrats And Washington Redskins Owner Dan Snyder, he drew the ire of his boss, Superintendent Brandt, for trying to follow the letter of Park Service regulations -- and the law -- on an array of issues that arose at C&O Canal.

The ranger alleges that the superintendent vastly exaggerated the amount of damage Hurricane Isabel did to the historical park in September 2003 to bolster his budget with rehabilitation dollars; took umbrage that Mr. Danno would question during a staff meeting his handling of the hurricane preparations; and was angered by Mr. Danno's opposition to letting Mr. Snyder illegally cut down trees on his property that lay within the park's scenic easement.

The friction between superintendent and chief ranger grew, and led to a number of administrative actions that, Mr. Danno writes, became ongoing. If he was cleared of one charge, another arose.

Those charges ranged widely. One asserted he failed to respond to another ranger's aid on a traffic stop—but dispatch recordings purportedly showed that wasn't the case at all, that Mr. Danno offered to respond but was told he didn't need to. Another charged that he failed to appoint an acting-chief ranger in his absence. In that case, writes Mr. Danno, he actually named two acting chiefs, and the matter didn't surface as a perceived concern until more than a year after the fact ... and after he made his protected whistleblower disclosures.

After the chief ranger approached Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility about his concerns over the tree-cutting, his relationship with Superintendent Brandt went from bad to worse.

Just two weeks after making my disclosures to PEER, two regional law enforcement officers came to my office and delivered a letter from Kevin Brandt informing me that I had been temporarily reassigned to another park, my law enforcement commision was being suspended, and an internal investigation was being launched into my work conduct," writes Mr. Danno. The two officers were to relieve me of my badge, gun, keys, and cell phone, escort me out of the office, and remove all of my personal and professional items from my office and patrol car to my home, including my work tools and other kits and equipment as well as my files, my awards, and the collection of ranger badges I kept on display there.

Amid my confusion, anger, and the overwhelming sinking feeling of being treated like a criminal, I realized what was going on. Brandt was playing hardball, and he was taking the offensive. He wasn't going to wait to be officially notifed that someone had blown the whistle. Instead, he was going to pursue the time-honored wrongdoers' strategy: kill the messenger. By discrediting me before I could blow the whistle, my allegations would carry less weight. I would be a disgruntled and troubled employee seeking revenge.

Perhaps most prominent in the public record in this case is a substantive 2006 investigative report into the matter from the Interior Department's Office of Inspector General.

That document stated that Superintendent Brandt violated the National Environmental Policy Act requirements in permitting the clearing of roughly 2 acres of land that, though technically owned by Mr. Snyder, carried Park Service scenic easements.

Additionally, the OIG's 19-page report outlined what was described as pressure from Mr. Smith on Superintendent Brandt and the historical park's lands coordinator to allow the cutting to proceed.

Superintendent Brandt, during an interview with OIG staff, "advised that Smith's involvement had a substantial impact on how he made his decisions concerning the Snyder tree-cutting issue."

In relating what he concluded to be an "unprecedented decision" to allow the cutting, then-Inspector General Earl Devaney wrote 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..."

And yet Mr. Danno, who raised these concerns with those higher up in the Park Service, seems to have been the only one punished in the case. And that leads one to wonder not only if those who allowed the tree cutting were punished in any fashion, but why Mr. Danno was targeted at all?

National Park Service officials have been silent on the case. When asked to comment on whether any administrative actions were taken against Superintendent Brandt or Superintendent Smith in the wake of the OIG investigation, or whether it was unusual for Mr. Smith to be promoted to superintendent after this matter, Park Service spokesman David Barna said the matter was still under investigation. For what he didn't say.

Mr. Barna also was silent on why the Park Service, after a federal court jury found Mr. Danno innocent on a charge of theft of government property (the property from Mr. Danno's office, including historic ranger badges that were given to him by a curator at the Park Service's curatorial facility in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, in an official exchange for some of his service uniforms), cited that alleged theft in December 2010 when it notified him that it planned to fire him outright.

More than anything this case needs some sunshine.

* Was it a conflict of interest for the Park Service to assign Lisa Mendelson, at the time Director Mainella's chief of staff and now a deputy regional director for the National Capital Region and, as such, Supertintendent Brandt's superior, to preside over a hearing into Mr. Brandt's various charges against Mr. Danno?

* Why did William Reynolds, the regional chief ranger in the National Capital Region, not question Mr. Danno to get his version of events when a man who rented a barn and pasture on Mr. Danno's property, and who was in arrears on his rent and received an eviction notice, two hours later reported to the Park Service that Mr. Danno was in possession of stolen government property and had threatened him?

* What made Mickey Fern, a deputy Park Service director and long-time friend of Mr. Danno's wife, talk to the ranger about his case and then, according to Mr. Danno, abruptly end contact?

* Why did Philip A. Selleck, the associate regional director for operations and education in the National Capital Region of the Park Service, cite Mr. Danno's possession of the historic badges as a basis for ousting him from the Park Service after the jury found him innocent of any wrongdoing?

Today's highly litigious society perhaps is part of the reason the Park Service is staying mum on this case. After all, another whistle blower—U.S. Park Police Chief Teresa Chambers—fought long and hard after she was busted by the Mainella administration for speaking publicly about how staff cuts within the Park Police could impact public safety. She was eventually reinstated with years of back pay.

But in cases such as Ms. Chambers and Mr. Danno's, the Park Service's deafening silence can't help but make one think the agency is pulling in the ranks rather than admitting it erred—or even explaining how such situations occur. But then, the agency in the past has been criticized for its insular tendencies and refusal to hear outside criticisms.

Nevertheless, this case must be making top officials in the Park Service and Interior Department particularly uncomfortable. Earlier this year, it was Ranger Danno who delivered the eulogy at the funeral of Margaret Anderson, a ranger who was gunned down in Mount Rainier National Park on New Year's Day.

Also attending the funeral were Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Park Service Director Jon Jarvis. What must they have thought of the ranger given that honor, one whom was deemed to sully the "public perception of NPS," as Mr. Selleck wrote in December 2010 when he notified Mr. Danno that he was being fired?

In Worth Fighting For, Mr. Danno, who continues to fight to have his name cleared and his law enforcement status reinstated, paints a compelling case that he was the victim of political retribution and whistleblower reprisal. He was busted in rank, had his house searched while he was on the other side of the country, and handcuffed at a public dock by U.S. Park Police in SWAT gear for, in his opinion, trying to see that his superiors adhered to Park Service regulations and environmental laws.

This autobiographical book not surprisingly paints Mr. Danno in a highly flattering way, so much so that he appears to be a model ranger. Scattered throughout the book are numerous photos from his career, which has stretched over three decades. He's seen involved in rescues in Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, dangling from ropes while training for search-and-rescue missions, helping transport some of the first wolves involved in Yellowstone's wolf recovery program in the mid-1990s, and escorting conservationist Mardy Murie to a meeting with President Bill Clinton. There's also a picture of a newspaper clipping describing a reunion Ranger Danno had with an exchange student from Mexico whom he saved from a mudslide that trapped him and his family in their truck.

Don't we want our rangers to be upstanding exemplars of protecting both the parks and the people who come visit?

What makes this book so disconcerting is that it comes close on the heels of two other books—The Soul of Yosemite: Finding , Defending, And Saving The Valley's Sacred Wild Nature, and Billy Malone And The National Park Service Investigation At Hubbell Trading Post—that portray the Park Service as an agency that seemingly has strayed from not only its responsibility when it comes to preservation of natural, historical, and cultural resources, but also from fairness.

Are these three books 180 degrees off the mark, or is there something wrong in the Park Service?

What is difficult to reconcile is the silence out of the director's office. It wasn't quite three years ago that Director Jarvis cautioned his 20,000-odd employees to maintain the highest ethical behavior as they go about their tasks:

The public has placed its trust in us to carry out the mission of the Service in preserving the natural and cultural resources of the national park system and in all of our external programs and partner activities (local, State, National and international). It is important that we take this responsibility seriously and perform our duties in a way that fosters high ethical standards.

Mr. Danno took his responsibilities seriously. He seems to have been punished for doing so. For an administration that professes transparency and insists on the highest ethical behavior, both seem missing in this case.



This sort of story about the National Park Service high priesthood is becoming depressingly familiar. I'd bet there are at least a dozen similar stories for each that sees the light of day. Hats off to Ranger Danno for his persistence and courage!

More and more, NPS management is displaying unmistakable cultlike characteristics. The following indicators and concluding quote are snipped from:

The group has authoritariansim without meaningful accountability.
The group is elitist and has a special mission.
The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality.
There is no tolerance for questions or critical inquiry; questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
There is no meaningful financial disclosure regarding budget or expenses.
Members need to ask permission for major decisions.
Members may be underpaid or unpaid, and work in unsafe environments.
There are excessive demands on the time and energy of group members.
Members are physically and/or psychologically isolated from society.
There is strong behavioral control of where, how and with whom the member lives and associates with; what clothes, colors, hairstyles the person wears, etc.
Former members often relate the same stories of abuse and reflect a similar pattern of grievances.

"If a group has more than half of the cult characteristics in any of the lists, then you should be concerned."

Double Wow.....ugly stuff, really hope this gets resolved.

Sound like the making of a great documentary for whistleblowing, like "Erin Brockovich"! I wonder how many favors were given, and cash was passed along in the process. What a shame to taint this good man's honor!

Rob Danno was and is an exceptional National Park Ranger. All who worked with and for Rob know his high standards, complete honesty and total commitment to the true mission of the National Park Service. It is difficult to understand why such an outstanding employee would be treated in this fashion and why the NPS is not able to apologize and correct this situation quickly and honestly.

It would be especially interesting to see how much pressure may have been exerted on top NPS officials from the Bush/Cheney White House.

But that still leaves the question as to why the current inhabitant of that address hasn't done anything about it. If he knows of it.

How are National Park Service employees expected to maintain the "Highest ethical standards", as exhorted by Park Service Director Jarvis, when he himself refuses to correct this obvious and appalling situation? The statement by NPS Public (Mis)Information officer David Barna that he can't comment because Danno is still under investigation (ie: being harassed) 8+ years after his whistleblower disclosure has to be the joke of the year.

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