Central Valley

Obituary: Wildlife official William Sweeney, outspoken conservationist

William "Bill" Sweeney, a former head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in California who brought national attention to bird mutations caused by toxic soil at the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge, died Saturday of cancer, his family said. He was 84.

Mr. Sweeney became California director of Fish and Wildlife in 1976 and worked on issues related to waterfowl, fisheries and endangered species. He established wildlife refuges and supported a captive breeding program to restore the California condor.

An ardent conservationist, he ran afoul of Washington officials for opposing federal policies that hurt California's natural resources. He expressed concern about environmental harm caused by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's irrigation projects in the San Joaquin Valley and contamination from farm runoff. He supported the Public Trust Doctrine, which asserts water and wildlife must be protected for the benefit of all Californians.

"Bill was a man of incredible integrity," said Jim McKevitt, a retired Fish and Wildlife manager. "He wouldn't back down in the face of politics."

Mr. Sweeney took early retirement in 1983 after the U.S. Interior Department abolished his position. The move freed him to speak out publicly about bird deaths and deformities at the Kesterson refuge area in Merced County, where biologists found selenium contamination in the soil.

In interviews with the CBS show "60 Minutes" and other news media, he traced the poison to farms irrigated with federally subsidized water and accused Interior officials of conspiring to cover up the problem. The refuge area eventually was closed.

"It was out of character for people who retire," said Felix Smith, a former Fish and Wildlife biologist who helped expose the problem at Kesterson. "Most just hang up their shingle and sit back and relax. But Bill didn't do that."

William Duggan Sweeney's devotion to protecting the American West was rooted in early years spent hunting, fishing and trapping in New England. The eldest of eight children, he was reared in Whitman, Mass. An excellent athlete, he gave up a football scholarship at Providence College to join the Marines during World War II.

He married Anne Baker in 1949 and earned a wildlife management degree from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. He joined the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1950 and worked in six states before moving to Sacramento to lead the agency in California.

Mr. Sweeney settled easily into retirement after 32 years of public service. He enjoyed golfing, gardening at his Citrus Heights home and traveling to visit family, friends, and Fish and Wildlife reunions throughout the western United States.

"He loved the outdoors out here," said his son Jim. "He turned down opportunities to move up in the agency in Washington because there was no guarantee he could return out here. He chose to just stay."