By Larry S. Moore
Finally the proverbial cat is out of the bag, which also means the devil is now in the details. Perhaps it is bad to start a column with such cliché’s but that seems to sum up the situation. The Kasich Administration announced the overhauling of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) to combine the divisions watercraft and parks. Over the past several years there have been signals with moving of offices, not replacing retiring personnel, combining of the law enforcement dispatch of the ODNR and other moves. These have raised the eyebrows and concerns of involved constituents. Senate Bill 293 introduced as part of the Mid-Biennium Budget Review (MBR) by Senator Troy Balderson (R – Zanesville) spells out the details.
The leadership of ODNR has released their talking points and statements. The plan is to create a single division including the merger of the law enforcement officers and duties. The move, according to ODNR officials, will save about $1 million in the budget. The officials claim that the bill will simply make it a statutory law of what the goal has been for the past year. The goal is efficiency within the agencies.
The current Division of Watercraft is funded by monies from boaters fees and fuel tax. This is not supposed to change with the new structure. Parks has been underfunded for decades. Currently the Division of Watercraft has approximately 190 employees while the Division of Parks is just under 400 employees. According to the administration the plan has been carefully considered in Columbus.
A number of leading sportsmen are clearly concerned. I do not believe this is a good move for the boating public or the users of our state parks for a number of reasons. First the move is inappropriate for the MBR process. The MBR is a review of the budget before entering the second year. It is not meant to be the time when an overhaul of an agency is considered. When the Division of Wildlife requested the out of state hunting license fee increase, the Ohio Senate rebuffed it saying the MBR process was not the appropriate place for new fee structures. If that is the case, then this move is way out of bounds!
While the plan may have been carefully evaluated in Columbus, it has not been communicated to outdoor public who use the state parks and operate watercraft. Such a significant realignment of the ODNR should be given the full attention of the users and constituent groups including public input and hearings. Such an overhaul should not be hatched in Columbus and snuck through the General Assembly as part of a mid-term review. The current structure has served the ODNR constituents very well for decades.
The ODNR indicates that the users overlap greatly between watercraft and parks. Certainly there are a number of boaters who use the state parks. There are also a number of boaters who are hunters. Hunters, bicyclists and hikers also use the state parks. They also may use the Division of Forestry lands. Using their logic more divisions should be combined. The mission of each division is sufficiently unique as to require separate focus, programs and attention. Watercraft operates on lakes, rivers and streams that are not part of the park system. Watercraft has investigative responsibilities on private waters.
The biggest difference is the dedicated funding source, the Waterways Safety Fund. The administration position is that the Waterways Safety Fund will not be impacted. However the bill deletes key language that currently requires all moneys collected to be deposited into the fund. Replacing that language is “The fund shall consist of money credited to it under this chapter and Chapters 1546. and 1548. of the Revised Code.” That is hugely different than stating all the money collected is required to be placed into the fund. Now the fund will only consist of money credited to it. Seems the politicians are pulling wool over the people’s eyes. This appears as nothing more than a political move to grab the waterway funds to prop up the Ohio State Parks. Playing political shell games with funding is not the way to solve the dilemma.
Currently the Division of Wildlife is not affected in any reorganization. The Kasich Administration and the General Assembly understand that any games with wildlife will result in thousands of orange hats appearing in the statehouse. So, instead, they continue to pick off the easier marks of divisions without such a broad and vocal constituent base. SB 293 clearly specifies a natural resource officer (section 1501.24), laying the groundwork to only strike a few words in the future to fold all law enforcement duties under one ODNR police force. The bill grants broad authority to a natural resources officer who likely could enforce wildlife regulations or even take over the duties of the Wildlife Officer.
Much of the oversight and approval of the Recreation and Resources Council is being removed in the bill. This removes a key citizen oversight council and further reduces the availability of public scrutiny. Removing citizens from a role in government only leaves the politicians and appointed leadership more freedom for future shenanigans.
The chief of the new division of Parks and Watercraft is charged to designate rules governing parks and watercraft with no public citizen body oversight. The Kasich Administration has failed Ohio sportsmen and outdoor recreational users by not filling many positions on a number of citizen boards. These boards were designed and did serve as an effective tool for citizen input to the ODNR.
The bill is just over 12000 lines long and written in the legal language of the Ohio Revised Code. It can be difficult to read. However it is painfully clear this legislation is certainly not in the best interest of Ohio boaters and park users. ODNR needs to go back to the drawing board and, more importantly, out to their constituents to more fully explain and document this move. They need to ask the boating and recreational users what we want and how we want to be served. Instead, they are directing and legislating from Columbus where they seldom get it right.
Larry S. Moore is a local resident and long-time outdoor columnist.