It’s been a long journey to the latest announcement, and most significant one to date, regarding the purchase of the American Electric Power (AEP) ReCreation Lands. Since the 1950s Greene County area sportsmen have been making their way to southeastern Ohio to camp, hunt, trap and fish.
Initially they were the Mead Power Lands which have been open to public recreation since the 1950s. There have been several changes in ownership until AEP today. I took a buck there about 1989 and have enjoyed many fishing trips. My children have all hunted, fished and explored the area extensively. The ODNR Division of Wildlife has managed the lands with numerous small lakes which offer some of the best bass fishing found in Ohio. Many small business such as gas stations, diners, bait, tackle and gun stores rely on the attraction of the ReCreation Lands for a substantial portion of their business.
The sale of the extensive holdings has been discussed since approximately 2011. The Kasich Administration reception of any land purchase was luke-warm at best as the administration planned to sell as much state-owned land as possible. The potential sale created much concern in the sportsmen community for fear the 60,000 acres might be lost to public access. Ohio is public access land poor ranking very near the bottom of all states.
The potential sale of 60,000 represented about 10 percent of the total lands open for public recreation. It was a huge concern. Sportsmen organizations, including the local Greene County Fish and Game Association, were clamoring for ODNR to save these lands. The groups finally came together in a strong coalition under the leadership of the Columbus based Sportsmen Alliance. Over 40 statewide sportsmen conservation organizations soon signed onto the effort recognizing the value to Ohioans.
Finally, after a number of false starts, then-ODNR Director Jim Zehringer signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with AEP in August of 2017. Almost a year later, July 2018, Governor Kasich dedicated the first purchase of 5735 acres naming it the Jesse Owens State Park and Wildlife Area. It was also announced that the purchase of an additional 13,000 acres was in the planning stages. While acknowledging that this is a good start, the statewide coalition members, continued to voice concerns about the remaining over 40,000 acres. AEP had the right to sell smaller amounts.
During the gubernatorial campaign, meetings were held with every candidate on a number of sportsmen issues with the AEP lands at the top of the discussions. Recognizing the importance of outdoor recreation to the quality of life, the candidates pledged to do what they could to preserve this public land. Mike DeWine made a strong pledge to the sportsmen organizations.
Recently I had the privilege of attending Governor DeWine’s press conference announcing the second purchase of the AEP land. The DeWine Administration put together an aggressive budget for the ODNR. Members of the sportsmen coalition testified during the budget hearings in support of the land purchase. The Ohio General Assembly made some modifications but gave a huge amount of cooperation to the administration and sportsmen. Funding for the project came from $47 million in capital improvement funds appropriated in July by the Ohio General Assembly through House Bill 166. Additionally, more than 180 Ohio conservation and sportsmen clubs have pledged money and support toward the purchase.
ODNR’s most recent purchase was completed on Sept. 27 for 4,213 acres. The additional 31,443 acres will be acquired in six installments starting March 2020. This brings the total purchase to 41,369 acres. The State of Ohio also has the option to purchase 18,500 more acres in the area by June 2023, which could bring the total close to 60,000 acres. The reason for the purchase in parcels is to properly survey and document each section. Additionally, the final 18,000 acres are now in a signed purchase agreement with AEP to be exercised by June 2023.
However, the full funding for the future purchase is not yet committed.
The Sportsmen’s Alliance lead Protect What’s Right campaign supporters include: Buckeye Firearms Association, Ducks Unlimited, Ohio Conservation Federation, Ohio State Trappers Association, Pheasants Forever, Greene County Fish and Game Association, the Columbiana County Federation of Conservation Clubs and the Central Ohio Chapter of Safari Club International. This will ensure the area continues to offer some of the finest recreation lands in a most beautiful portion of our state. ODNR Director Mary Mertz pledged that the land will continue to be managed as in the past.
“This is an historic addition to Ohio’s public lands,” said Governor Mike DeWine. “With this acquisition, we ensure that all of our citizens and future generations will continue to enjoy this scenic area and its resources.”
Larry Moore is a local resident and long-time outdoor columnist.