(CN) – Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke on Wednesday appointed as new National Park Service director the man who allowed the billionaire owner of the Washington Redskins to clear native trees on Park Service land.
Daniel Paul Smith was appointed director of the 417 national parks despite having been formally reprimanded by the Park Service for his role in one of the agency’s more recent scandals: clearing trees on Park Service land so Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder could get a better view of the Potomac from his $10 million mansion.
“I can think of no one better equipped to help lead our efforts to ensure that the National Park Service is on firm footing to preserve and protect the most spectacular places in the United States for future generations,” Zinke said in a statement Wednesday.
Zinke’s statement was buried in a news release on the reassignment of acting director Michael Reynolds, who was named the new superintendent of Yosemite National Park.
In 2006, the Park Service inspector general found that Smith was largely responsible for disregarding National Park Service rules in allowing Snyder to cut down about 140 native old-growth trees from Park Service-managed land.
“The unprecedented decision to allow Mr. Snyder to cut out on the easement resulted from the undue influence of P. Daniel Smith,” the inspector general report said. “Smith inappropriately used his position to apply pressure and circumvent procedures on Mr. Snyder’s behalf.”
The incident, which took place during the George W. Bush administration, was described by the administration’s critics as a prime example of cronyism in federal agencies.
At the time, Smith was a special assistant to the Bush-appointed National Park Service Director Fran Mainella. He is also a former National Rifle Association lobbyist and Republican congressional aide on Capitol Hill.
During a game Mainella attended as Snyder’s guest in 2003, the subject of the trees that blocked Snyder’s view came up. After that, Smith pushed to intervene with park staff on Synder’s behalf.
Meeting with Snyder and his team of lawyers, Smith and other Bush administration officials hammered out an agreement that allowed Snyder to cut trees back to 200 feet from his property despite failing to conduct an environmental analysis or consult with Montgomery County, Maryland, which shares jurisdiction over the property.
Longtime National Park Service ranger Paul Danno noticed the removal of the trees, believed it violated park procedures and called for an investigation. He persisted despite his immediate supervisors rebuffing him, then was assigned a desk job and nearly fired. This prompted him to file the whistleblower complaint that led to the inspector general investigation.
After the investigation, a National Park Service SWAT team raided Danno’s house, charging him with theft of federal property, which included several badges that Danno said had been given to him over his extensive years of service.
The National Park Service took Danno to federal court, and a jury exonerated him in 2009.
Smith, on the other hand, received a formal reprimand but was allowed to continue to work in the Park Service. He became the superintendent of the Colonial National Historic Park, a position he held until he retired in 2015.
The inspector general report concluded that Smith could not give an accurate account of his involvement in the scandal and often provided misleading and contradictory testimony to investigators.
But U.S. attorneys declined to prosecute him.
Zinke announced Smith would serve as the National Park Service deputy director on Jan. 9, then promoted him to the full director’s position Wednesday.
“It is an honor and a privilege to return to Washington, D.C., with the invaluable perspective from the field that I gained during my time as Superintendent of Colonial National Historical Park,” Smith said in a statement in early January.