Outdoors: Battle over ODNR finances not exactly new

Last week’s column hinted at unrest within ODNR when it comes to finances. This is not a new situation. I have been writing about ODNR for about 25 years and I am sure the “battle” was raging long before that.

The problem is simple. Wildlife and watercraft officers have had the best equipment, while the parks personnel have had to do with hand-me-downs. Take a look at a park ranger’s old car next to a wildlife officer’s new SUV and it will be obvious. But, of course, it goes deeper than that.

Unfortunately, the parks have small income streams, surviving mostly at the whim of the legislature. Watercraft gets a chunk of the state’s gasoline tax and the money from boat registrations. Now that Parks and Watercraft have merged, I am assuming that money has been spread out. Meanwhile, the Division of Wildlife’s complicated and important mission is supported almost entirely by license and permit sales, fines and special federal funding.

I received an interesting letter following last week’s column that mentioned a possible effort to merge all divisions into one ODNR unit. The letter was from John Patrick, retired from the ODNR Division of Parks and Recreation after 30 years.

He wrote, in part: “You stated that some of the divisions who were not able to increase their own funding have ‘lusted after the rich wildlife division that can support itself from sportsman dollars from license fees and federal funds.’ This may be true, but only because the funding process in Ohio has been flawed from the beginning. The vast majority of wildlife sportsmen do not have a clue as to how the ODNR and its various divisions are funded…

“Over my 30 years of service, I constantly had to listen to hunters/fishermen/boaters complain about the lack of facilities, lack of maintenance in our state parks and how ‘they paid for the licenses and the places were terrible.’

“When I explained to them that those monies went to other agencies who did not have to take care of the lands and waters which they used for hunting/fishing/boating, their answer was usually, ‘I thought it was all the same.’

“There is where the problem is … lack of understanding on how the ODNR operates and is paid for. Park officers, forestry officers, watercraft officers (all now natural resource officers) checked hunting and fishing licenses and worked directly with constituents of the Division of Wildlife, however any fines from violations issued by those officers went to the Division of Wildlife.

“This issue seems to be finally coming to a head and the Division of Wildlife is circling its wagons in order to protect its funding. While I don’t blame them for trying, they need to let their constituents know the full story of how much of their funding goes towards the lands and waters in which they are being used.”

While I think Mr. Patrick has some valid points, I think Wildlife doesn’t have money to give away without destroying its own mission. The real answer is for ODNR to come up with ways of raising money for parks and preserves that do not include siphoning money from its Division of Wildlife.

Dare I mention the dreaded park admission fee? A true user fee. No governor wants his legacy to say he was the one who first charged admission for Ohio parks. That may be true, but how about this one: “John Kasich, the man who first charged for state parks … and saved the parks.”

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