Meet Your Controversial New Park Service Director

The résumé of P. Daniel Smith, including a troubling work history

The Park Service has been without an official director since Obama-era appointee Jonathan Jarvis retired last January. (Matthias Mullie/Unsplash)
national park

There’s a new acting director for the National Park Service, and he has an interesting past. Most notably, P. Daniel Smith made headlines for the time he helped the owner of the Washington Redskins cut down trees on federally owned, protected land to lend the billionaire a better view.

The Park Service has been without an official director since Obama-era appointee Jonathan Jarvis retired last January. Since then, Michael Reynolds has been acting director, but he and the Trump administration have been on poor terms since day one. The day after his inauguration, Trump personally called Reynolds, upset over a retweet from the official NPS Twitter account that compared Trump’s inauguration crowd size with the much larger crowd that gathered to watch former President Barack Obama take the oath of office. Then, last summer, Reynolds objected to legislation backed by the National Rifle Association that would restrict the NPS from regulating hunting or fishing within park boundaries. (It also would have allowed hunters to shoot hibernating bears in Alaska.) But the administration crossed out Reynolds’ comments on the legislation, siding instead with the NRA.

Smith, mind you, is a former lobbyist with the NRA. Here’s what his résumé could look like, including his history of putting the concerns of the rich over park protection.

The Job

As acting director, Smith will oversee some 20,000 National Park Service employees who protect 417 national parks. The Park Service has a $3 billion budget, but it also has a $12 billion backlog of deferred maintenance on park infrastructure.

Noteworthy Work History

Smith was born in Maine and is an Eagle Scout and Vietnam War veteran. He has a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in recreation administration from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

1970 to 1975: Smith gets his start in Washington, D.C., working on Capitol Hill as a staff member for Senator Sam J. Ervin, an independent-minded Democrat from North Carolina (who also served on the Senate Watergate Committee).

1978 to 1980: Smith works as a lobbyist for the NRA.

1982 to 1986: He gets a job in the Department of the Interior as deputy assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks, then with the Park Service as director of legislative and congressional affairs.

1987 to 1997: Smith spends ten years at the General Services Administration, an office that, among other things, helps the government cut costs.

Controversy in the NPS

Smith joined the Park Service in 2001 as a special assistant to then-director Fran P. Mainella. In a 2006 interview with the Washington Post, Smith explained that his job there was to “troubleshoot important issues,” and it seems that one of his major responsibilities was to clear up disputes between the Park Service and the D.C. area’s wealthy elite. As a report by the DOI Office of Inspector General (OIG) points out, that included allowing a land exchange to appease an angry and influential Virginia homeowner whose driveway encroached on federal property.

But the deal that got Smith reprimanded involved billionaire and Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder. For years, Snyder had been pressing the Park Service to let him chop down trees near the C&O Canal National Historical Park because they blocked his mansion’s view of the Potomac River. Snyder even offered to donate $25,000 to a fund of the Park Service’s choosing, according to the OIG investigation. But the local park superintendent turned him down. That changed after NPS Director Mainella attended a Redskins game. Smith was put on the case, and a deal was made to cut down roughly 40,000 square feet of trees, including about 140 native old-growth trees—all done without the required environmental surveys.

A local ranger reported Snyder, and that triggered the investigation, which found that Smith had “unduly influenced” lower-level Park Service employees. Smith was then transferred to Virginia’s Colonial National Historical Park, where, as superintendent for ten years, he oversaw a 23-mile strip of scenic parkway and three historic sites. He retired from that post in 2014.

Earlier this month, Smith was brought back onboard with the Park Service, and last week he was promoted to acting director.

Recommendation

“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.” —Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke

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