Former directors lament decline in parks funding

The meeting's purpose was to lobby for additional ODNR funding.
COLUMBUS -- Joe Sommer recalled a time when every state park had a manager on site and adequate staff and funding.
But the former director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources listened Tuesday as park advocates outlined funding cuts, deteriorating facilities and other issues affecting the state's natural areas.
"It's reached the point that concerns me very much, and I talk to people around the state," said Sommer, who headed the agency from 1985-91. "You can only let these things slide so far. ... All of these things that lend themselves to a good, positive experience are starting to slip in many areas, and I think it's reached a critical point."
Sommer and two other former ODNR directors spoke as part of the Natural Resources Summit and Legislative Briefing in Columbus.
More than 100 legislators and/or their aides attended the event, which was organized by a coalition of groups that included the Nature Conservancy, the Ohio Federation of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, the Izaak Walton League of America's Ohio Division and the Ohio Forestry Association.
The session was designed to spotlight the need for additional funding for the agency in advance of lawmakers' coming deliberations on the state budget.
Presenters outlined staff and funding declines among ODNR's park, forestry, natural areas and soil and water conservation divisions and provided photos of deteriorating facilities at parks and natural areas around the state.
Some successes
Sen. Tom Niehaus of New Richmond in southern Ohio, R-14th, served as moderator for the afternoon session, which featured Sommer, Bob Teater (ODNR director from 1975-83) and Sam Speck (director, 1999-2006).
Speck said ODNR has found success, even when faced with budget constraints. The state has been able to leverage federal funding for projects, including Marblehead Lighthouse State Park in Ottawa County and North Bass Islands located in Lake Erie.
Increased use of conservation easements has allowed the state to preserve natural resources and public access to sites without having to purchase more land.
And increased development of volunteer groups is helping to build and maintain trails and support parks at the local level, Speck added.
But all three also said they would like to see a dedicated source of funding for ODNR -- perhaps created through a statewide referendum placed before voters.
"To do that, it's going to take a coordinated effort, and people are going to have to say that's the way they want to go," Sommer said.

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