Eight weeks ago, Utah Governor Mike Leavitt was sworn in as the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. What can businesses expect from him? If his track record in Utah is any clue, the former insurance executive whose family also owns a fishery near Loa, Utah, will provide industry with significant leeway. But while many business groups consider Leavitt an ally, several well-known entrepreneurs have sharply criticized his policies--and one even threatened a trade show boycott of the state.
The commotion began in April when Leavitt negotiated with Interior Secretary Gale Norton to drop a layer of wilderness protection from almost 6 million acres of backcountry Utah land. The move offended not only the usual suspects like the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, but also the state's outdoor recreation industry. Its leaders argue that mountain climbers come to Utah specifically for its pristine red rock canyons.
LEAVITT "HAS A REPUTATION FOR CREATING TASK FORCES THAT NEUTRALIZE HIS OPPONENTS AND DON'T DO MUCH." UTAH ENTREPRENEUR PETER METCALF
In a searing Salt Lake Tribune op-ed piece in May, prominent local businessman Peter Metcalf broached the idea of relocating industry trade shows--which bring $24 million into the state each year--in protest. "I was willing to have the governor be passively negative or neutral on the issue of wilderness preservation," says Metcalf, who runs Black Diamond Equipment, a rock-climbing gear company that grossed more than $40 million in 2003. "But the minute he becomes actively negative, I have to speak up."
To assuage the industry, Leavitt appointed a task force to identify wilderness areas that are vital for recreation. Though Metcalf is somewhat mollified, he notes that "the governor has a reputation for creating task forces that neutralize his opponents and don't really do much." "We're getting a lot of lip-service," adds Mark (Roody) Rasmussen, CEO of Petzl America, a distributor of climbing equipment, "but not a lot of follow-through."
In yet another controversy, the new EPA chief's family fish farm stands accused of introducing trout infected with the deadly whirling disease--which causes fish to swim in circles--into Utah rivers. Though Leavitt sold his share of the farm in 1992, protesters dressed as diseased trout heckle him at speeches--one attended his Senate confirmation hearings last fall. Of course, for every angry Utahan, there are many more who support Leavitt's laissez-faire mindset. "In general, the rule in Utah is no rule," observes Bruce Schmidt, former director of the state fish and wildlife agency. "They regulate very little, and the politics in Utah do not support the environment."