Even though it was always a possibility, the firing of Bill Geer came as a surprise. Even now, amid all the drivel from Capitol Hill, the reasons given are as thin as air.
Gov. Norm Bangerter had everything to gain by keeping Geer, and everything to lose by firing him. He chose to lose.In one move, he could have mended a lot of bridges and shown sportsmen and conservationists that he really isn't out to dam Utah's streams, starve its deer, and pave its meadows. As it is now, outdoors organizations are even less sure of Bangerter's wildlife and conservation interests than when they unanimously went against him in November, saying he had totally ignored their interests during his first term.
What is more disturbing is that the two key people Bangerter listened to in making his decision - Lt. Gov. Val Oveson and Glen Brown, R-Coalville, former speaker of the House of Representatives - appear to have a personal interest in Geer's dismissal. Equally disturbing is the thought that maybe Bangerter satisfied Oveson and Brown while ignoring thousands of Geer supporters throughout the state.
At question are the reason for Oveson's and Brown's displeasure with Geer. Is it because Geer wouldn't compromise his position for political favors? There are strong indications that this is the case.
The reasons given for Geer's firing were vague. He was dismissed, Oveson said, because he failed to see two sides to a story, because while satisfying wildlife interests he was at odds with industry and agriculture, especially in rural areas.
If this is the case, where are the people who made these charges? Why haven't they spoken out? If rural Utah is unhappy with Geer, why hasn't there been an outpouring of support for the governor's decision? Why is it that after Brown's statement a few weeks back that Geer is out of step with people in his area, one of Brown's own constituents made a special trip to the governor's office to tell Bangerter that Geer was in step and that it was Brown that wasn't? Where are all these Geer critics to offset Geer supporters? The only words against the fired director thus far have come from Oveson and Brown, both of whom are now answering charges that they asked Geer for political favors.
Did Oveson indeed ask Geer for complimentary hunting/fishing privileges, which were denied? Did the lieutenant governor ask the DWR director to ignore wildlife violations committed by members of the Utah Legislature? And did Brown attempt to use his legislative clout to get a friend hired on the DWR staff, an attempt which was denied on the grounds of insufficient experience?
To most observers, the DWR has never worked more closely with landowners and industry on wildlife issues. Many feel, too, that Utah has never had more creative wildlife programs, nor has it had more positive results from these programs. And never, they feel, has Utah had a better wildlife director.
The most frightening thing about all this is the message Bangerter is sending, not only to sportsmen but to his other appointees. To keep their jobs, what must they do? Geer did his job very well, Dee Hansen, Geer's immediate boss, acknowledged. He followed company policies and stood up for his charges - man or beast . . . and he was fired.
Bangerter says no one should get mad until they have seen who is hired to replace Geer. But then what? To keep his job, what will be expected of the new director? Will this open a floodgate for "development" and "personal" demands on Utah's resources?
Sportsmen and conservationists are angry at losing Geer but angrier at Bangerter for ignoring them and what they see as the best interests of the state. Those who have called to express their frustration feel they were sold out by the governor. They are angry at what happened and frightened at what might happen.
What must happen is that new legislation must be passed this January that will take the director's job out from under Bangerter's thumb and out of the political arena.
Seven years ago, former Gov. Scott Matheson took control of the director's job away from the Utah Wildlife Board - a five-member group appointed by the governor. Doug Day, DWR director before Geer, was fired then, also under strong opposition from sportsmen and also for purely political reasons. The director's job should be put back under board control. Bangerter has proven it. The DWR director can't do his job and play politics, too.