The ‘shenanigans’ behind a federal employee’s decision to blow the whistle

Pressured by higher-ups, a Fish and Wildlife field supervisor smoothed the way for a 28,000-home development along a fragile Arizona river.

 

Steve Spangle, a career employee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, seemed the unlikeliest whistleblower: During his 15 years supervising Arizona’s ecological services office, which is responsible for protecting the region's endangered wildlife, migratory birds and habitats, Spangle opposed environmentalists on a host of issues. For example, in 2016 he signed off on a key biological clearance for the Rosemont Mine, a giant, open pit copper project that will disturb more than 5,000 acres of lush Madrean woodlands of oak and mesquite trees near Tucson.

But this spring, Spangle, now 65 and retired, spoke out publicly against Fish and Wildlife’s 2017 decision about a long-contested housing development along the San Pedro River — a decision he signed off on.

Green kingfishers rely on the San Pedro River's habitat, which new development could threaten.

For more than a decade, developers and agencies have battled over building the 28,000-home Villages at Vigneto subdivision. Pumping for Vigneto could choke off the aquifer that nourishes miles of lush ciénega and classic cottonwood-willow forests along the San Pedro River, an important destination for migratory birds such as green kingfishers, gray hawks and ladder-backed woodpeckers. The development would also clear more than 12,000 acres of desert. In 2016, Spangle required the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to do a full environmental review of the project. 

But in 2017, Spangle dropped that requirement. That, in turn, meant the Army Corps could re-issue its federal permit for the development, clearing the way for the developer to start building. The Corps has since suspended its permit, which authorized filling in desert washes, after multiple groups — including the Lower San Pedro Watershed Alliance, Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity — sued to overturn it. But Spangle’s policy reversal stands, which means that the developer still won’t have to study environmental impacts on the vast majority of the land.

In late March, Spangle told the Arizona Daily Star that he changed the project’s requirements under pressure from superiors at the Department of the Interior, then led by Ryan Zinke, and that this case led him to retire early. The department denies pressuring Spangle to change his decision.

Spangle recently spoke with High Country News about his surprising decision to speak out.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

High Country News: When you reversed your decision on the Vigneto development in 2017, was it hard for you to write a decision that you didn’t believe in?

Steve Spangle: I knew that this was the (Trump) administration’s position, and, since I worked for the administration, I had a job to do. I was also pretty certain that the correct interpretation would float to the top during any litigation, so I didn’t lose any sleep over the decision. 

HCN: Why did you blow the whistle?

SS: It was the political aspect — that I strongly suspected had happened and has now been confirmed — that somebody had done an end run around my office and sought influence above me to change my position. That was different than anything that had happened to me before. I felt the public should know that some shenanigans had taken place. It didn’t seem like the right way to do business.

HCN: Who requested the reversal of your original decision? How did you learn of the request? 

SS: A friend in the Interior Solicitor’s Office called me to say that she was told by an Interior Department political appointee that it would be in my best interest politically to reverse my decision.

The way she phrased it, it was clear that she wanted to keep that person anonymous. So I didn’t even ask (who it was). I’m also not going to disclose who called me, because she’s a friend.

(Eds. note: Both the Arizona Republic and the Arizona Daily Star have reported that Mike Ingram, the CEO of development company El Dorado Holdings Inc., called then-Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt in 2017 to argue against Spangle’s earlier decision.) 

Courtesy of Steve Spangle

HCN: What makes this case different from other permits, such as for the Rosemont Copper mine, over which you and the environmental movement went toe to toe? 

SS: What really, at its core, bothered me the most this time was that decisions were being made with political influence. I’m not saying there weren’t political decisions being made before, but they never affected me. I was never told to make a decision different than what I thought was the right decision until now.

Our job (at Fish and Wildlife) is to assist federal agencies in implementing their programs, while at the same time minimizing the effects on listed species. That often requires a detailed consultation about those impacts under the Endangered Species Act. In this case, Interior and the Corps were trying to avoid that review.

HCN: The developer and the Army Corps say that a detailed analysis of indirect environmental impacts to the San Pedro River isn’t needed. What’s wrong with that rationale? 

SS: I don’t think that is the correct position. It’s the only north-south migratory corridor of any significance between the Rio Grande and the Colorado River.

HCN: What does Interior’s handling of this case say about the Trump Administration’s view of environmental issues?

SS: What happened to me is a symptom of a much bigger problem with the administration’s environmental policy. Trump’s appointments to run natural resource agencies such as Interior and EPA have really been examples of putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. It shows the pro-industry side of the equation is dominant right now in Washington, D.C. 

HCN: What do you hope will come from your decision to speak out?

SS: I hope that the 2017 decision will be reversed and that my original decision will be restored.

Tony Davis has written for High Country News on water, grazing, land use, mining and other topics since the late 1980s. He’s currently the Arizona Daily Star’s environmental reporter.

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