CNN has caught up with Steve Spangle, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service whistleblower. In June, Spangle talked to High Country News about what he described as “shenanigans” around a proposed housing development in Arizona.
Put on hold because of environmental concerns in 2017, the project was back on track after what CNN describes as “a secret meeting” between the developer and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.
The High Country News interview notes that the USFWS twice warned the project would have “appreciable” effects on wildlife, including rare species such as the jaguar and yellow-bellied cuckoo. Spangle says he changed the project’s requirements under pressure from superiors at the Department of the Interior, an assertion the department has denied.
Spangle, now retired, decided he needed to explain his 2017 decision lifting objections to the construction of a 13,000-acre “Villages at Vigneto” housing and golf course development on the San Pedro River southern Arizona.
“I felt the public should know that some shenanigans had taken place. It didn’t seem like the right way to do business,” he told High Country News. In this case, he said he changed the project’s requirements under pressure from superiors at the Department of the Interior, an assertion the department has denied.
He had more to say to CNN this week.
Following the meeting (between the developer and Bernhardt), which did not appear in Bernhardt’s official calendar and has not been previously reported, the field supervisor says he was pressured to reverse his decision, allowing the project to move ahead.
“I felt pressured to reverse my decision … in simplest terms, I was rolled,” Steve Spangle, then a 30-year veteran of the Fish and Wildlife Service, told CNN in an interview. “I made a decision, which was my authority to make in Arizona, and that was overruled by higher-ups in the administration.”
The meeting is one of at least 11 interactions Ingram had with top officials at the Interior Department and Environmental Protection Agency during the Trump administration, according to a CNN review of emails and calendars.
The House Committee on Natural Resources has notified Department of Interior that it is investigating Spangle’s charges.
CNN reports that some in the local community welcome the project. The network also reports that the Department of Interior declined to answer CNN’s specific questions, but issued a statement: “U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has reexamined the issue at hand and using the best available science as required under the Endangered Species Act issued the same exact conclusion.” A lawyer for the developer said the CNN report is based on innuendo.
The High Country News report noted that Spangle has opposed environmentalists in the past.
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.