Three years ago, Mark Leavitt and his brother, Dane, were swimming against a tide of allegations that their fish hatcheries in central Utah were responsible for infecting Utah's wild trout population with whirling disease.
Several streams were poisoned by state wildlife officials to stop the spread of the disease, and critics blamed the Leavitts - whether right or wrong - for the dramatic drop in anglers visiting the region and spending their money at local stores.Now, Gov. Mike Leavitt has appointed his brother Mark, who currently operates the Road Creek Inn in Loa, Wayne County, to the Utah Board of Travel Development as the representative from San Juan, Piute, Garfield, Wayne and Kane counties. That citizen advisory board advises the Utah Travel Council on how to attract more tourists.
Vicki Varela, Gov. Leavitt's press secretary, said the appointment of Mark Leavitt to the board is one of 600 or 700 appointments made by the governor so far and that "he thought Mark was a great candidate who met all the criteria."
Those criteria include being a Republican (in order to maintain political balance on the board), being someone from the tourism industry and being from the appropriate geographic region.
"Mark has done a fair amount of effort on tourism in central Utah to get people to spend more time and money in the area," Varela said. "Mark is a player in tourism within that geographic area. If you look at the pool of candidates in those counties, it is a short list."
Apparently the list was particularly short inasmuch as Mike Leavitt called his brother on the telephone to see if he would be interested in the position.
"He asked if I would be interested, and with us becoming deeper and deeper involved in the hospitality end of tourism with ranch vacations and hunting and fishing and cattle drives, he thought it made sense," Mark Leavitt said.
Mark Leavitt also said assertions that the Leavitt family operations in Wayne County have caused a decline in tourism were asinine. "There is no parallel," he said.
"To make that claim, you have to make two assumptions, one that we caused or requested Division of Wildlife Resources to destroy all the fisheries in Wayne County, which is exactly opposite of what happened, and, two, that we were the cause of the disease. Time has proven we are the victim of this thing and not the cause. There is not a shred of evidence we were the cause."
Mark Leavitt admitted he is not well-versed in the tourism issues of San Juan County, where Canyonlands and Anasazi Indian ruins attract hundreds of thousands of tourists, or the tourism of Garfield County, which is home to Bryce Canyon and some 3 million tourists a year.
"If he had someone chosen from the San Juan area, I would question whether their knowledge of Wayne County issues would be as strong as it should be, too," Mark Leavitt said. "I can say I will learn the issues in those areas and I will represent the district well."
Mark Leavitt is not the first person related to the governor who has been appointed to state boards. Dixie Lou Poole, a sister-in-law, was appointed to the State Library Board, and another sister-in-law, Christie N. Needham, was appointed to the Board of State History. Leavitt's brother-in-law S. Eugene Needham was appointed to the Utah Arts Council. All three hold advanced degrees in those particular areas of study.
"The issue is not who is related to the governor, it is whether they are qualified," Varela said. "These people are eminently qualified. No one should be disqualified because they are related to the governor or know the governor. The truth is we are asking them to do a public service that is a time-consuming responsibility."
Gov. Leavitt's appointment of Mark Leavitt to the Board of Travel Development must be confirmed by the Utah Senate when it convenes next Wednesday. Members of the board are paid a small per diem to cover expenses.