Fireside Read: Worth Fighting For
Editor's note: This book was reviewed on the Traveler earlier this year. The following review, which was written for the Association of National Park Rangers and Ranger magazine, offers a somewhat different perspective. It comes from Rick Smith, a long-time Park Service employee who rose up through the ranks to become one of its top managers.
An observer not intimately familiar with the details of this story might ask: why is one of the most talented and honored rangers in the National Park Service, chief ranger in three different parks -- Chiricahua National Monument, Bryce Canyon National Park, and Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park -- now assigned as the staff park ranger for the National Capital Region, duty stationed at Antietam with no discernable duties, while still being paid as a ranger with law enforcement duties? If that makes you curious, you have to get this book to find out why. I highly recommend you do.
Last summer I reviewed the book that dealt with the investigation regarding Billy Malone, the Indian trader at Hubbell Trading Post. I said that was a hard book for me to review because of the initial botched investigation of Malone and because the author’s portrait of National Park Service culture did not ring true with my own. This book is also difficult for me to review, but for different reasons. Robert Danno’s portrait of his career in the NPS is like a travelogue of wonderful places and experiences. He worked as a seasonal in Whiskeytown, Sequoia/Kings Canyon and Grand Canyon.
In addition to the parks above, he was a permanent employee in Virgin Islands National Park, Channel Islands National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, and Yellowstone National Park. During his time as a ranger, he married his wife, Mary, they had three children, and lived a life that he describes as inspirational and exciting. He did the requisite number of rescues, dealt with medical emergencies, arrested bad guys, and assisted uncountable numbers of visitors.
He became a “ranger’s ranger,” was nominated twice for the Harry Yount Award honoring the Service's top ranger, received the Department of the Interior Valor award, and the Meritorious Service award. He speaks in awe of his assignment at Madison Junction in Yellowstone and of his pride of being a ranger in the “mother park.” This is all the stuff of a very successful career and it makes great reading.
What was difficult for me is to read what happened next, beginning in March of 2005, when Danno was notified that his work conduct at the C&O Canal was being investigated two weeks after he reported to the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility that the park superintendent was acting improperly with a boundary issue. He was stripped of his law enforcement commission, assigned to another park, all the items were removed from his office and transported to his home by park employees, including his awards, tool kits and other items that a ranger keeps in his or her office. Sometime after that, his home was raided and items were removed by the NPS (while he was out-of town). He was subsequently arrested, ordered face-down on a marina dock, and carted off in handcuffs. All this for a two-time nominee for the Harry Yount Award?
While Danno had disagreements with the acting superintendent at C&O Canal over issues related to incident command and felt that the acting superintendent’s damage assessments following Hurricane Isabel were dishonest in order to get more money for the park, the real problem was Washington Redskins billionaire owner Dan Snyder clear cutting trees on his estate to improve his view of the river.
This was a major sensation in the Washington, D.C. newspapers. According to Danno, he had consistently warned the acting superintendent that this was a violation of law and policy, and should not be allowed – which the acting superintendent was advocating. Danno now believed, that Snyder did not act on his own and that the acting superintendent gave him permission to do the cutting. Danno filed a whistle blower complaint with the DOI OIG and the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.
A year later, the OIG investigative report came out. Incredibly, it concluded that the decision to allow the tree cutting had come from the NPS Director Fran Mainellla’s office and that the special assistant to the director, Dan Smith and the now-superintendent of the C&O Canal, Kevin Brandt, had not been truthful with the investigators. It did not, however, recommend any discipline against these employees and referred the case back to the NPS for appropriate action. Yes, that’s right; they recommended that the NPS director’s office discipline itself. It is not surprising to learn that the NPS did not take any further action.
Nine months after he was arrested, Danno was indicted on one charge of theft of government property. His trial began in January, 2009. I found the sections of the book dealing with the author’s preparations for the trial and the trial itself to be fascinating. It is particularly interesting to read the account of his attorney punching holes in the testimony of the chief ranger of National Capital Region, the person who had taken the items from Danno’s office and transported them to Danno’s house, among the very items that he was now accused of stealing. It’s an incredible story! The jury found Danno not guilty in minutes. Some of the jurors waited until he left the courtroom to congratulate him.
It’s a happy ending, right? Wrong. Three-and-a-half years after the not guilty verdict, the NPS still has not taken any disciplinary action against those involved in the Snyder tree-cutting incident, nor has it restored Danno to any position of authority worthy of his experience and abilities – they just put him in a closet and let him sit.
I have known Rob Danno for 20-25 years. I have the highest regard for his honesty and integrity and the greatest respect for the variety of field ranger skills he possesses. If all he says is true, which a OIG investigative report confirms, this is another stain on the leadership of the National Park Service. I wonder how many more of these kinds of incidents have to occur before the NPS realizes that the low marks it receives in the federal Office of Personnel Management's “best places to work” surveys, especially in leadership, are fully justified?
This is a cautionary tale for those NPS employees who believe that whistle blowers will be protected from reprisal by their agency; they won’t be. It is also a look at agency behavior that is hard to imagine. While the book is well written and engrossing, at the end I was disheartened. Like Danno, I loved my career with the NPS. It is hard to believe that it has become just another government bureau. I think Horace Albright warned us about that.
A Park Ranger Blows the Whistle on Bureaucrats and a Billionaire and Pays the Price. Worth Fighting For tells the tale of a dedicated ranger who lived up to his oath of office as a federal law enforcement officer and ultimately fell on his sword to protect park resources