In the latest sign of defiance to President Donald Trump among federal environmental employees, a retiring Interior Department lawyer sent an email to hundreds of colleagues this month, urging them to “stand your ground” and resist being pressured into signing off on legally indefensible environmental decisions.
Eric W. Nagle, a 22-year veteran of the Interior Department’s solicitor’s office, sent the email on Feb. 16, just before he departed his office to attend his retirement party.
The email prompted a rebuke from a superior, but in an interview Thursday, Nagle said he felt compelled to speak out after Trump’s recent Twitter criticism of a federal judge in Seattle. That incident, combined with Trump’s rejection of climate change, left him convinced that “this administration is not going to respect law or science,” he said.
Other federal environmental employees have felt compelled to take similar public stands. Hundreds of employees of the Environmental Protection Agency office in Chicago participated in a protest this month against Trump’s nomination of Scott Pruitt, the former attorney general of Oklahoma, to head the EPA. Late in January, retired National Park Service director Jonathon Jarvis took to Facebook to state how he was watching “the Trump administration trying unsuccessfully to suppress the National Park Service.”
Nagle, who worked out of the Interior Department’s Pacific Northwest office in Portland, Oregon, spent much of his recent career defending the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s enforcement of the Endangered Species Act. He prepared legal opinions on some of the most politically fraught battles over threatened wildlife, including sage grouse, marbled murrelet and gray wolves. Prior to joining Interior, he worked in the Justice Department in Washington D.C., where he prosecuted pollution cases, including the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989.
In his Feb. 16 email obtained by McClatchy, Nagle thanked the lawyers and scientists he’s worked with on endangered species cases. Then he offered a warning.
“Now we are in troubled times,” he wrote. “Our new president seems to have little regard for science, or indeed for truth of any kind. The events of the last few weeks have shown the importance of the checks and balances set forth in the Constitution, and in particular the critical role of an independent judiciary.”
Nagle went on to urge his colleagues that they and other civil servants could serve as a check on unlawful decisions. “I believe that, if a directive came down that families registering for campsites in national parks must declare whether they are Muslim, the National Park Service’ lawyers would respectfully advise that our laws do not permit that sort of inquiry.”
The same should hold true, he wrote, if Interior employees were pressured to approve an oil drilling project that could threaten an endangered species.
“So here is my parting plea to you: Stand your ground,” he wrote. “Don’t allow your name to be placed on a document that you know to be legally indefensible or scientifically unsound.”
Stand your ground. Don’t allow your name to be placed on a document that you know to be legally indefensible or scientifically unsound”
Interior Department lawyer Eric Nagle, in an Feb. 16 email to colleagues, on the day he retired
Nagle’s message prompted a response the next day from Edward Keable, the acting solicitor at the Department of Interior. Without mentioning Nagle by name, Keable messaged employees of the solicitor’s office to remind them “of the responsibility we have as lawyers and professional staff in managing our communications.”
“Each of us has important first amendment rights as American citizens to express our personal political, social or moral opinions,” wrote Keable, who could not be reached Thursday for comment. “It is not appropriate, however, to use government resources such as our email system to express those personal opinions.”
Keable went on to state that Interior rules create an expectation that “lawyers will be loyal to their client, including managing conflicts of interest.” Nagle said he did not understand that latter part of Keable’s message.
“It is nothing unusual for a lawyer to offer an opinion the client does not welcome,” he said. “As a lawyer, you need to tell clients what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.”
An avid hiker, Nagle said he did not retire because of Trump’s election; he was planning to step down prior to November, to spend more time outdoors and with his family. He then decided to send out his email on his last day, pressing the send button at 6:48 p.m. before heading to his retirement party.
Nagle acknowledges that his fears about the incoming administration may be premature. Trump’s nominee to lead the Interior Department – U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, a Republican from Montana – has yet to be confirmed by the Senate. Without leadership in place, no policy directives have been handed down to the department’s Pacific Northwest office or other regional offices, he said.
“None of us really know what the new administration at Interior will be like,” said Nagle. “It is fair to say there is a widespread feeling of dread here, partly because of what the president is saying and the appointments he is making.”
Stuart Leavenworth: @sleavenworth