By JIM ABRAMS
My work with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources spanned from 1973 through 2010 and three divisions. From that first day of donning a ranger’s uniform at Beaver Creek State Park to the day I turned in my wildlife officer’s badge in Findlay, I never lost the pride of what we collectively did to represent and protect our resources.
During that time, I’ve seen quite a few ODNR directors come and go. I met most of them, if you include seeing them at a distance at some meeting. A few even took time to say hello. While cleaning out some old files I ran across a photo of Director Bob Teater chatting with me after an event. He was a standout.
Teater served from 1975 to 1983 and was a leader who expected people to do their job. When he said jump, you didn’t ask “How high?” You pushed your way to the front of the line.
He’d been a second lieutenant in Korea who earned the Bronze Star, later retiring as a major general from the reserves. Before working with ODNR, he was associate dean of the College of Agriculture and director of the School of Natural Resources at Ohio State. He recognized the value of his ODNR co-workers from top to bottom.
Teater was a hard act to follow, yet most of the proceeding directors — at least from my limited sight line — did a good job. There was one that had a less than a stellar impact on ODNR, but that’s last year’s news. While still in recovery from that implosion, the patient’s prognosis is improving.
It’s been six months since Gov. Mike DeWine appointed Mary Mertz to lead the ODNR out of those political doldrums, and it’s time I pull out my Teater measuring stick and grade their efforts.
Following the last administration’s devaluing of national conservation organizations, with one administrator referring to them as “cults,” DeWine and Mertz have done an outstanding job of healing those wounds. Personal calls, conversations and event attendance have been a top priority.
This June, DeWine and Mertz invited leading conservationists to the governor’s mansion for an all-Ohio fish fry and wild game picnic, and to show them their support. Having just attended the first Inland Fish Ohio Day, the governor suggested that a “Hunt Ohio Day” might be a great idea. He spoke briefly about the current budget allocations for the ODNR, his selection of Mertz and his pride in the ODNR. The event was well received by nearly 350 attendees.
Working with constituents “” Teater grade: A+
There are campaign promises and there are post-election actions. If you’ve voted in at least two presidential elections and can read a newspaper, you know the difference. While vying for your votes, DeWine said he was going to fix the ODNR. The stern was scraping bottom while the rats were escaping on their lifeboats. This was going to be tough.
Mertz, DeWine’s former chief of staff, longtime professional friend and trusted associate, was handed the director’s chair. Was this cronyism? Don’t believe it. While this could turn out to be a reward for service, it will be for the service that Mertz does for the ODNR. An experienced leader, she continues to excel. She’s showing up in a lot of places around the state to meet constituents, to support the ODNR budget and to meet employees.
New director “” Teater grade: A. I’d given her an A+ if she’d bagged a turkey this spring.
Then there is the ODNR budget, described as flush just a year ago. I’ve decided that the last administration must have been misquoted; maybe they said “flushed”. In any event, that dismal debacle had seized control of the wildlife and watercraft divisions while moving their money like a shell game.
After 16 years without an increase in funding, an analysis of the Division of Wildlife’s financial health revealed a stunningly massive backlog of capital projects that were going unaddressed, including upgrades to shooting ranges, boat access and fish hatcheries.
DeWine and Mertz fulfilled their promise to Ohio sportsmen by including a major investment in hunting, fishing and trapping programs when he introduced his budget. The Ohio House has approved these same priorities in its version of the budget: House Bill 166. The Senate has also given it the nod, and it’s now in legislative committee to hammer out differences before sending the bill to the governor.
Wildlife budget “” Teater grade: A+
The ODNR also faced a severe shortfall in the funding necessary to maintain its existing staffing, and there was no plan for how the retention of AEP’s ReCreation lands would be funded. This jeopardized 60,000 acres of public land available for hiking, hunting, trapping and fishing. The predicted shortfall is $306 million over the next 10 years.
The governor, with the help of the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance and a coalition of sportsmen’s clubs, put together a funding package within the budget. The Conservation Reinvestment Initiatives provides $87 million to the Division of Wildlife to begin addressing high-priority issues and operational needs.
Emergency fix “” Teater grade: A+
Two continuing concerns are the health of Lake Erie and Ohio’s water quality. The H2Ohio Initiatives include funding that would allow the creation of more wetlands in targeted areas to naturally filter out nutrients and sediment, minimize water quality problems and treat polluted water.
Water quality “” Teater grade: B. The concept is excellent, and we will see how the final state budget addresses this issue and watch how it’s implemented.
While wildlife’s portion is strongly supported, Ohio’s state parks may not fare as well as requested. The wildlife division has a historically strong and well-known constituency that has a willingness to pay its way individually and for letting its voice be heard.
Parks doesn’t share this support base. While many enjoy visiting, camping and hiking Ohio’s parks and waterways, they’re collectively silent. Since visiting them is free except for camping, cabins and lodges, most of us take them for granted, and some legislators treat that budget accordingly; read, “Nobody seems to care.”
That’s too bad, especially considering how important our parks are to lower- and middle-income folks who can’t afford extravagant vacations. I grew up in one of those families, and my memories of vacationing in our parks are treasured moments. They deserve our support.
Parks “” Teater grade: A for effort. Hopefully our legislators will understand the importance of a well-run, properly staffed park system.
Teater tally: A
I hope it stays there. If things keep improving, I may need to develop a “Mertz-Measure”.
While speaking to Mertz during our initial January meeting, she asked me what I thought was the “heyday” of the Division of Wildlife. I never offered a good answer, so here it is:
Director Mertz, I can’t answer that question because each of us has our own perspective that’s dependent upon our personal history. Jobs, technology and resource management have evolved. It isn’t my place to tell you what the “heyday” was, it’s your job to make today the “heydays”. The one irreplaceable element is the hiring of qualified and determinedly dedicated employees: They’ll be with you until retirement, some even beyond. Just look around your own office.
“The older I get, the less I listen to what people say and the more I look at what they do.” “” Andrew Carnegie
• July 13: Native plant and pollinator workshop, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. , Sandusky River Coon Hunters, 7575 S. Township Road 131, Tiffin. Preregistration required by July 10. Contact Christina Kuchle at 419-348-5073 or email@example.com. The event is free.
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 OH 45867-0413 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.