ODNR Loaded with Talent

Outdoors with Forda Birds—By John Andreoni

When the people elected the new governor, I’m sure he had people in mind to run Ohio’s various departments and agencies. Common sense would dictate that he surround himself with trusted appointees who were intelligent, savvy to the minefields of politics, and experts in their fields. Over the 50 years I’ve written this column, I’ve watched it go both ways. Sometimes, a share of appointees were nothing more than political hacks and cronies owed a position for whatever reasons. Other times, they actually warranted the jobs they received. Generally, it worked both ways because of the career employees who held things together as long as their talents were utilized. This was especially true in the natural resources field.

Unlike the current zoo in Washington, Ohio government has performed fairly well over the years. In terms of the ODNR, there have been issues and decisions made during the last administration that were questionable. Without a lot of details, the Department didn’t function as well as it could have, at least at the highest level. Mary Mertz, the new ODNR director, is aware of these problems and has navigated her way through similar issues while working as a lawyer in the Attorney General’s Office. At a meeting I attended last weekend, Mertz said she and the Governor wanted to build a strong agency to address long-term and present concerns. Creating the H2Ohio Fund would ensure safe and clean waters across Ohio threatened by algae blooms and other forms of pollution and contamination. Up to $900 million dollars could be spent over the next ten years. A more present concern is the potential loss of access to AEP lands that are now for sale. Capitol money for acquiring or securing some 55,000 acres is necessary since this land represents a significant percentage of Ohio’s public access hunting and fishing areas.

Mertz also stressed the need of a strong team to accomplish these and other initiatives. From the individuals she announced as part of her new organization, it was evident that she was walking the walk. Kendra Wecker was appointed as chief of the Division of Wildlife. Wecker has more than 25 years of experience working for the Division building programs and partnerships that helped shape Ohio’s conservation efforts. Wecker, in turn, appointed Todd Haines and Pete Novotny as assistant chiefs. Both Haines and Novotny are career wildlife specialists and both were district supervisors during their careers. Former Wildlife Chief Steve Gray, who I’ve known since he was a wildlife officer, was at this meeting. I thought he had retired but later found out that he was now an assistant director working for Mertz. Mike Budzik, former advisor to the previous administration returned in an advisory role with the ODNR and the governor’s office. Budzik was also a former chief of the Division of Wildlife. That’s a quality bunch of people with a lot of talent and experience.

Like many, one of my major concerns revolves around the GLSM. We have problems, and it’s good to have people in high places who know these problems, understand them, and share our concerns. It was a pleasant surprise to see that Glen Cobb is now Chief of the Division of Parks and Watercraft. Cobb was a former park manager at St. Marys and those who knew him respected the way he operated. I’m quite comfortable that Cobb will address the many issues our area has as well as those created by the merger of the Division of Parks and the Division of Watercraft.

According to Mertz, there is a significant biennial budget being presented to the legislature that supports the Natural Resources agenda. Mertz is positive about the chances of the budget passing. Wildlife will be seeking modest hunting and fishing license increases as part of the Conservation Reinvestment Package. It appears that future natural resource funding might be gaining in importance as opposed to being an afterthought. In terms of developing a strong team, it looks like the new Director rounded up some of the all-stars. There’s a lot of positivity floating around about these appointments and aggressive funding. Hopefully, it will stay that way.