SALT LAKE CITY — Donna Kemp Spangler has been the voice and face of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality for a dozen years, but does she walk the walk or just talk? Let’s put her to the test.
Does she recycle? Check (of course).
Consolidate her errands? Check.
Turn off her car, instead of idle it? Check (are you kidding?).
Turn off lights when leaving a room? Check.
Take the train occasionally? Check.
What about that long, exhaust-spewing commute from her home in Ogden to the Department of Environmental Quality office in Salt Lake City? Check: She drives a hybrid when she doesn’t take the train.
All this is probably to be expected from a woman who likes to keep a compost pile in the backyard. She even married a fellow environmentalist — Jerry, a former environment reporter for the Deseret News who has teamed with his wife to write a couple of books about Utah lands.
“I do think that people expect me to have a higher standard, and I expect it of myself,” she says. “Since I’m asking the public to be aware of their actions, I try to set a good example.”
For an entire month, Spangler rode the train as part of the statewide Clear the Air campaign and then blogged about it.
“During the month,” she wrote, “I finished three novels, completed some work-related tasks, and met some great folks who live in my Ogden community. The rides home were quite a treat as I was able to tune out the distractions of the day by either reading a book or listening to music. By the time I made it home, I was much more relaxed than being stuck in rush-hour traffic.”
Never mind that it added 35 minutes to her commute. She’s all in.
Spangler is the public information officer for the Department of Environmental Quality — motto: “Safeguarding and improving Utah’s air, land and water through balanced regulation.” They’re the people who remind you not to burn wood on inversion days and not to leave your car idling, along with all those other things mentioned above.
Spangler is the one the media turns to when they want an official comment on air pollution or an oil-shale project or nuclear waste disposal. The department controls industry permits and monitors the environment to ensure federal and state laws are followed.
It alerts and educates the public about potential environmental hazards (think Utah Lake algal bloom last summer). It conducts research and communicates the results and recommendations to the public and to policymakers to persuade them to act accordingly.
This is where Spangler’s job gets tricky. Just try explaining what’s at stake when, say, EnergySolutions wants to dispose depleted uranium in Utah.
“It gets complicated,” she says. “You’ve got to explain that that waste gets hotter over time. We have to use models to come up with an answer: Is this going to be safe 1,000 years from now? We’ve got to communicate the science without losing people. We have to do it in a way that’s going to be engaging.”
The Department of Environmental Quality partners with various groups to help spread the word. It will partner with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to conduct a study that will use an airplane to determine the sources of air pollution in Utah’s skies. (Spoiler alert: Cars are the biggest culprit.)
“We want to provide information and research to motivate the public to make good decisions that will help environmental quality,” says Spangler.
Spangler comes by her environmentalism honestly and not merely because it’s professionally expedient. She took a degree in journalism from the University of Portland, then moved to Utah to live the life of a “ski bum” — her words — before returning to the Northwest to begin a journalism career.
As an editor and reporter for newspapers in Walla Wall and White Salmon, she frequently covered environmental issues. She was already an avid hiker, skier and windsurfer who appreciated the beauty of the outdoors, so she naturally embraced the idea of protecting it.
“It was emphasized in what I covered and what the newspaper was covering,” says Spangler, who wrote an award-winning series on land preservation. “It became something that was in the forefront of my mind. … Environmental issues were always intriguing to me.”
She returned to Utah again, this time to take a job with the Deseret News to cover local government. She eventually became the newspaper’s environmental writer, replacing her future husband, Jerry, who took another beat. Among other things, she wrote about toxic waste, Superfund cleanups and the controversy surrounding the disposal of radioactive waste on Goshute tribal lands.
Spangler left the Deseret News when Jerry accepted a job to cover Washington, D.C. for the Deseret News. She quickly landed a reporting job there covering nuclear waste issues for a trade publication. Her work caught the attention of the Department of Environmental Quality, and she was encouraged to apply for the public information officer job in Salt Lake City.
After 20 years in journalism, she left the profession to work for the Utah agency. This time, Jerry quit his job and followed his wife across the country. He launched a nonprofit organization called the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance, which “seeks to protect and preserve landscapes of national significance by working collaboratively with governmental entities, industry, private landowners and conservationists.” Today, he's the organization's executive director.
The Spanglers recently co-wrote a book called “Last Chance Byway,” which chronicles the history and archaeology of Nine Mile Canyon. The canyon is famous for its prehistoric Native American art and the Old West characters who frequented it. Published by the University of Utah, it is a follow-up to an earlier book they self-published called “Horned Snakes and Axle Grease.”
The books are a labor of love, as is much of Spangler’s work for the Department of Environmental Quality. As she puts it, “The DEQ has been an excellent fit for me."