Former Wisconsin DNR Secretary George Meyer Reflects On His Career
George Meyer says his career began at the dawn of the golden era of environmental protection. Meyer recently retired as the first executive director of a citizen conservation organization called the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation. That job followed Meyer’s long career with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
But before all that, Meyer grew up on his family’s small farm in Calumet County. “What it did engrain in me is a love for the land. I appreciated the outdoors, watching the birds when I was working,” Meyer says.
Meyer headed off to college not quite sure about what his career would be. “Like a lot of young men, I didn’t know,” he notes. "I went to St. Norbert College. I got a really nice scholarship there up in De Pere.”
After earning a degree in economics, Meyer moved on to law school at UW-Madison. “These were very turbulent times. This was 1969 and I can remember sitting in the classroom, where the air intake was having teargas sucked into the room,” he recalls.
Meyer got his foot in the DNR's door thanks to a friend. “My freshman year I needed money obviously and I had a friend who left the DNR as a law clerk and said, ‘Hey this job is going to be open, why don’t you try it?’ and I got in there,” Meyer says. That was April 1970, 12 days before Earth Day. “Earth Day on the UW campus wasn’t as big a deal because the Vietnam situation was going on and that was a more paramount situation on students,” he adds.
Upon graduation in 1972, Meyer was hired as one of three DNR attorneys. “That’s when a lot of the federal laws had passed. [The] Clean Water Act, National Environmental Policy Act, EPA had just been put together by President Nixon, and there was a lot of funding that came to the states at that time to implement the Clean Water Act. And I was hired under those funds, just being in the right place at the right time,” Meyer says.
A decade later, Meyer was asked to head the DNR’s enforcement division at another pivotal time in Wisconsin conservation history: when the 7th Circuit Court Of Appeals affirmed the off-reservation rights of the Ojibwe people of northern Wisconsin on January 25, 1983. Over the next eight years Meyer led negotiations to establish seasons for hunting, fishing and gathering, with spearfishing among the hottest issues.
“We were called upon to protect Native Americans when they were out spearfishing, which they were doing the very thing years before our wardens would have arrested them for… We were able to get through that without being killed… That was a lot of police work, but a lot of luck too,” Meyer says.
During that era, Meyer says he and his family received threats. “In northern Wisconsin they called me an Indian lover and when I would go home to liberal Madison, people called me an Indian hater,” he recalls.
After that experience, Meyer says becoming DNR secretary was a breeze.
“The treaty rights situation was a great training ground and you get the thick skin you need as a DNR secretary; you also knew how to be a leader... and how to be in front of your employees,” says Meyer. “I always viewed part of my job was to support them. That was the role of a leader and also take the arrows and let them do their job.”
Meyer says one of his proudest accomplishments was being involved in the purchase of 150,000 acres of land. “I was secretary of the DNR under the famed Knowles Nelson Stewardship Fund, one of the strongest and best environmental conservation things that ever happened in this state, being that act,” Meyer recalls.
Meyer retired from the DNR in 2002, but not from conservation. One year later, he became the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation’s first executive director. “We get more public recognition because of our advocacy because it’s usually on issues, many of them controversial, but we actually do more and put more of our budget into our education programs,” Meyer explains.
He's particularly proud of the federation’s newest program, the Conservation Leadership Corps, now in its ninth year. “We have around a dozen to 14 college students every year that we train in how to be conservation leaders. We have 100 graduates; virtually all of those students have gone on in conservation as a career …. several work for the Department of Natural Resources, several work in federal agencies,” Meyer notes. “It’s just amazing working with them.”
Meyer retired, he says for the second and final time, last month. He plans to stay in touch with the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation; it named Meyer an honorary board member. “I’m going to spend a lot of time with my grandson. He may be doomed to be an outdoors person,” Meyer says with a laugh.
Meyer says he also plans to write a book. “That might be interesting reading [about] probably one of the most exciting conservation eras that this state has ever had,” he says.