A good ranger stands up to bad bureaucrats

  • Andrea Lankford

 

When a woman ran to the front door of Yellowstone Park Ranger Robert M. Danno with a small bundle in her arms and a panicked look on her face, he grabbed the medical kit the National Park Service had issued to him. Danno, whose duties included emergency medicine as well as law enforcement, carried the kit with him constantly, even bringing it to his own home. It was fortunate that it was available when the young mother laid her blue and unconscious infant on the ranger's kitchen table and begged him to do something.

That was in 1994, and Danno had worked with the Park Service long enough to know that during the course of every park ranger's career, bad things can and will happen. But he never imagined that one day, over 10 years later, he would find himself handcuffed and held at gunpoint by his peers.  He had no idea that he would end up facing a courtroom trial, or that his testimony about what occurred that day on his kitchen table inside Yellowstone National Park would play a role during it.

In 2003, after working in several Western parks, Danno accepted the position of chief ranger at the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park near Washington, D.C. Many rich and powerful people live near the C&O Canal, which parallels the Potomac River. For decades, park officials aggressively protected the historic and natural integrity of the C&O Canal through scenic easements prohibiting landowners from cutting mature trees on lands bordering the park. So, in 2004, when Dan Snyder, the billionaire owner of the Washington Redskins, clear-cut 130 protected trees, it was Rob Danno's duty as the park's chief law enforcement ranger to initiate an investigation.

Some facts surrounding the Snyder tree-cutting scandal remain sketchy because the high-level government officials involved "don't recall" anything. According to an Office of Inspector General report, it appears that Fran Mainella, Park Service director at the time, and several others "from the Bush administration" attended a Washington Redskins game. Soon after, Dan Snyder was given unprecedented permission by C&O Canal Superintendent Kevin Brandt to cut down 130 protected trees.

The clear-cut improved the view from Snyder's mansion and increased his property value significantly. It also left behind an unsightly gash in an eroding hillside. Snyder's neighbors were furious, the Audubon Society was horrified, and Rob Danno blew the whistle on the park superintendent.

Eventually, the Inspector General found the Park Service guilty of "wrongdoing," and the case was forwarded to the U.S. Attorney's Office. But instead of following up on the Inspector General's report, the U.S. Attorney's Office focused its attention on a case the Park Service had begun building against Danno himself.

In 2007, federal officers raided Danno's home and indicted the ranger for theft of government property. Among the seized items were a gag-gift necklace made of obsolete government keys, retired Park Service signs and an emergency medical trauma kit.

Danno tells all the sordid details in his new book, "Worth Fighting For: A Park Ranger's Unexpected Battle Against Federal Bureaucrats and the Washington Redskins Owner Dan Snyder." In this cautionary tale for all whistleblowers, the stubborn vindictiveness behind the Park Service's retaliation against this ranger is stunning. Incredibly, a U.S. attorney had the audacity to bring the theft case against Danno to trial.

It is a pleasure to read how the prosecutor squirmed while the ranger tells the jury about the day he laid a blue infant on his kitchen table in Yellowstone and resuscitated her until she started breathing again. The baby turned from blue to pink with the help of an oxygen tent Danno created with items pulled from the Park Service medical kit he always brought home when off duty -- the same emergency trauma kit the federal agency later charged him with stealing.

The jury had no clue that Danno was a government whistleblower, but even without the benefit of this knowledge, the deliberations lasted only 20 minutes. Their verdict: Not guilty, acquitted on all charges.

Yet Danno's ordeal with the Park Service is far from over. He remains demoted, stripped of his gun and badge, exiled to a lonely office and shunned by his colleagues.

Was it worth it? The ruin of his reputation? The lawyers' fees? Were a hundred or so trees really worth fighting for? Amazingly, Danno still thinks so. "In spite of everything that has happened," he says, "I am still loyal to the national parks."

Andrea Lankford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a former park ranger, the author of Ranger Confidential and lives in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California. For more about Rob Danno, go to www.honorcodepublishing.com.

Charles Fox
Charles Fox Subscriber
Apr 24, 2012 03:23 PM
How much of our money did the National Park Service waste prosecuting this civil servant? This is the opposite of how government should function at any level, this was life under Bush. Is it any different, any better, under Obama? Are there any penalties for advancing frivolous lawsuits?
Erin Huggins
Erin Huggins
May 08, 2012 10:48 AM
Every year government employees have to take the No Fear Whistleblowers Training. What a joke. Every government employee knows that you DON'T blow the whistle, otherwise you will end up just like the brave Mr. Danno. Kudos to him. He is a hero.