Frampton announced last Nov. 1 that he planned to retire in mid-January, ending a 37-year career that began as a field biologist and would end as one of the most-respected wildlife agency heads in the Southeast.
Then, things got interesting. At a DNR Board meeting a week or so later, a board member asked Frampton point-blank whether his retirement has been voluntary or forced. He responded that board chair Caroline Rhodes had asked him to retire a few months earlier than he had planned. Her quoted explanation was that if Frampton was planning to retire in April, SCDNR would be better served by having a new director in place when the state legislature convened for its 2012 term.
Where things get slippery is that, according to just about everyone involved, not all of the board members knew anything about Frampton's plans or retirement announcement. The four board members appointed by Gov. Nikki Haley, plus Rhodes, who was appointed by former Gov. Mark Sanford and elevated to chair by Haley, had apparently discussed Frampton's retirement without clueing in the two who were appointed by Sanford.
It is here that SCDNR appears at the top of the slope, ready for a long and damaging slide.
Haley has already been widely criticized for replacing the entire board at the state's Department of Health and Environmental Control, prompting the resignation of that agency's director. After those personnel changes, DHEC approved an application to allow Georgia to dredge the Savannah River to deepen its port, endangering a fragile area of marsh. It was an application that had previously been denied, reportedly the only one of 151 applications denied in the first nine months of 2011.
Now, board members that she appointed or promoted have taken steps to convince Frampton to retire early. It's not difficult to see Haley's fingerprints all over this case. Her spokesman, Rob Godfrey, did nothing to allay fears that she doesn't have the best intentions for woods and wildlife in mind.
"The governor was aware that members of the board were ready for the agency to go in a different direction," he said. "When it comes to searching for a new DNR director, the governor trusts the board to find someone who understands the need to protect our state's rich natural resources but also the need to cut regulations on our businesses and sportsmen."
Cutting regulations on business is not something that usually works out well for wildlife and wild places. Let's hope that legislators make enough of a stink that SCDNR won't slide deeper and wind up in a swamp where the state's fish, wildlife and sportsmen are covered by acres of muck and mire.