By JIM ABRAMS

There’s no doubt that the last two years have been quite contentious for Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) and for the state’s sportsmen. Years of political stonewalling and neglect have taken their toll.

How did it begin? I’m no policy wonk and have no desire to jump into that cauldron. It’s enough to know that a once-supportive governor had set his sights on a future of basking in the spotlight of “Poliwood.” To win over a potential national constituency, a “no-spending” mantra was chanted in the Ohio Statehouse halls while we were left wondering what our future holds in our own state.

His replacement, Gov. Mike DeWine, has been left with the aftermath. Roads and bridges are in disrepair, state park rangers have been jumping ship to look for friendlier environments, counties have been void of wildlife officers, and critical natural resource budgets had been carelessly spent down to nonsustainable levels.

Like you, I don’t like the idea of more taxes, whether they are new, replacements, or adding to existing money gathering attempts. And, like you, I’m realistic. Costs of doing business are not static, and sometimes adjustments are required if the same level of service is expected.

That’s the ODNR boat that DeWine has been left to navigate, complete with gaping leaks in the ship’s bow and a trepidatious, nearly mutinous, crew. His first job was to find a competent captain for the ship and to begin a search for new first mates.

In January, DeWine tapped Mary Mertz to take the helm of the Department of Natural Resources as its newest director, and she very quickly appointed Kendra Wecker as the chief of the Division of Wildlife. Kendra is the first woman to be appointed to the chief’s job while Mary is only the second female director, but that had nothing to do with their individual selections.

The fact that they have both been exceptional leaders, are linked to many past successes and have a vision for an exciting and achievable future is what landed them on board.

Even so, what were going to be their first steps?

In January, two weeks into her new job, Mertz’s office contacted me to let me know that Steven Gray, well-liked and imaginative retired wildlife chief, had been chosen to fill a position in the director’s office. I was also dumbfounded when asked if I would like to visit Columbus to have a personal conversation with the new director.

When our schedules were able to meld, I drove down for the introduction. I expected a handshake, pat on the back, a few promises and a shove toward the door. That didn’t happen.

What I did get was a warm welcome and a private one-on-one conversation that lasted for an hour of her complex schedule.

I didn’t feel it was fluff, nor was it rehearsed. She asked questions about how things had been accomplished during my 36 years inside the department that she now leads. She wanted to gain perspective.

Mertz was showing something I’d felt was lost at sea: leadership.

Upon leaving, I was invited to Gray’s office for a casual “hello.” Having worked with and for Steve, he was no stranger and I felt a lot of pride seeing him sitting in the assistant director’s chair. He assured me that Mertz was there to help navigate to better waters and that she had taken it upon herself to personally contact key constituents in hopes that they could offer insights of how best to set the course of her administration.

Mertz’s bio tells us part of her story of trust and dedication.

“Mertz served as the First Assistant Attorney General under Mike DeWine in the Attorney General’s Office, where she oversaw both the legal and administrative operations of the office.

“She has extensive legal experience in both the private and public sectors, having practiced law at a large, multi-national law firm.

“Mertz also served as chief of staff to Mike DeWine while he was Lt. Governor; as the legislative director for Congressman Bob McEwen; in the office of legislative affairs in the White House; and worked with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources while working for Ohio Gov. George V. Voinovich.”

Last Saturday, the Division of Wildlife’s open house was held at the Findlay office. During that time, the public was invited to review updated regulation proposals. A fortuitous breeze came when Mertz chose to attend the function and meet the people that work for her along with the people she represents. I believe it was the first time any director has attended this annual meeting in Findlay.

However, I know there will be rough waters ahead for Mertz and this administration. The governor has already warned of the need to address the deteriorated roads and bridges and the funding available for counties and townships to keep them safe.

The U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance is also calling on the governor to invest in conservation.

“A coalition of Ohio’s premier hunting, fishing and trapping organizations are calling on Ohio’s new governor, Mike DeWine, and the Ohio General Assembly to address a long-ignored funding shortfall that has prevented the Ohio Department of Natural Resources “” Division of Wildlife from addressing access, habitat and facilities issues, which has now become a full-blown crisis,” the alliance states.

These concerns have been echoed by many organizations, including Buckeye Firearms Association, Ducks Unlimited, the Ohio chapter of National Wild Turkey Federation, Ohio Conservation Federation, Ohio State Trappers Association, Pheasants Forever/Quail Forever, Central Ohio Safari Club International, and many local conservation clubs representing tens of thousands of Ohio sportsmen and women.

While ODNR employees have taken many broadsides, threats of walking the plank have overshadowed their careers and their flags have been forced to fly at half-mast. It now appears that the sails have been hoisted and the breeze may turn the ship into the sun.

The proposed state budget is likely to be released on March 15, and I expect that there will be both salt and sugar on board.

Have I jumped onto the director’s ship? No, not quite yet, but I confess I’m in line waiting for a ticket … I’m excited for the prospect of a new course and calm waters.

It may one day cost me a few bucks in user-based fees for a license or permit, but if it keeps wildlife conservation and our parks afloat and on a solid course for the future, I’m in. These are every director’s flagships.

You know, it’s no wonder that Mary Mertz was tapped to be at the helm of ODNR. The last sentence in her biography says it all: “Mertz is an avid sailor.”

“It is not the ship so much as the skillful sailing that assures the prosperous voyage.” “” George William Curtis

Step outside:

• Thursday and Friday: Trap and skeet, open to the public, 5 p.m., UCOA, 6943 Marion Township 243, Findlay.

• March 15 to 17: Ohio Deer and Turkey Expo, Ohio Expo Center, State Fairgrounds, Columbus.

• March 15: Last date to preregister to be a certified youth fishing instructor. The course is March 20, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Division of Wildlife office, 952 Lima Ave., Findlay. Program qualifies individuals to become certified fishing instructors. Contact Andrea at 419-429-8321.

• March 16: UCOA new member training, 10 a.m., UCOA clubhouse, 6943 Marion Township 243, Findlay. This training is required to use the rifle and pistol ranges. Details are published on their website at www.ucoa-findlay.com

• March 16: Hancock County Pheasants Forever banquet and fundraiser, Old Mill Stream Centre at the Hancock County Fairgrounds, Findlay. Tickets are $60 for singles, $85 for couples. Doors open at 5:30 p.m., dinner is served at 6:15 p.m. For tickets, email Andrew Crates at andrew@coldrencrates.com or Mark Plesec at meplesec@coopertire.com

• March 23: Seneca County Pheasants Forever banquet, Meadowbrook Park Ballroom, Bascom. Event features raffles with silent and live auctions. For tickets, call 419-934-3891 or email www.senecacountypheasantsforever.org

Abrams is a retired wildlife officer supervisor for the state Division of Wildlife in Findlay. He can be reached at P.O. Box 413, Mount Blanchard 45867-0413 or via email at jimsfieldnotes@aol.com

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