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Published: Sunday, 7/19/2009

Make do with a lot less

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources - steward of everything in the state from wildlife to waterways with parklands, forests, and oil, gas, and coal supplies among others in between - is being heavily retooled in the wake of a lean state budget.

Some of its divisions are being dismantled and various division chiefs are being told to get even more creative in making do with even less.

Some programs are being cut or restructured, and some fee hikes are in the offing to offset significant reductions in general tax revenue.

Not all of the dust has settled yet as to how it all is going to proceed, but it is clear that the "new" ODNR will be trimmer, even though its director, Sean Logan, vows to honor the department's mission statement: To ensure a balance between wise use and protection of our natural resources for the benefit of all.

"We will have to do it differently and even more creatively than we have in the past, " he stated in an interview last week.

Much of the public thinks of the "DNR" only in terms of state parks, watercraft, and fish and wildlife. But it more broadly oversees mineral resources - oil, natural gas, coal - and soil and water conservation, 21 state forests, 14 scenic river segments, and a scattering of 131 vest-pocket natural gems, the natures preserves. Not to mention state hiking trails, recycling and litter control, and more.

Relatively self-sufficient divisions, including wildlife and watercraft, are largely funded by dedicated user fees, including hunting and fishing license revenue and related federal rebates, and boat registration and motorboat fuel tax rebates. But even they are feeling the aftershocks of the budget earthquake.

A bevy of wildlife issues only partially budget related were removed from the budget bill for consideration later. But, a plan to offer free hunting and fishing licenses to any of the 17,000 Ohio National Guard members who want them was scrapped, thereby retaining thousands of dollars for wildlife.

Though a laudable gesture on paper, presumably it would have taken away fish and wildlife revenue without general fund compensation. Logan noted that some guardsmen even suggested they would rather pay for licenses and have more access and habitat down the road.

As for watercraft, it will be assuming new scenic rivers duties.

"We are in the most major retrenchment period in our history as a nation," Logan said, adding it is clear that "the public wants us to look at everything."

He lists about 10 "big things" that ODNR is having to look at, given that in the last 18 months money for the department has been cut by $23 million. Two divisions were hit especially hard, parks losing some $7 million in support and forestry some $4 million.

Both divisions, Logan noted, will have to continue to find ways to survive, relying ever more on money generated by their own activities, such as campground fees for parks and timber sales for forestry.

The fiscal 2010 budget, which began July 1, provides just $107 million in general fund money with a further reduction to $102 million for fiscal 2011. Logan said about 45 percent of that money goes to debt service for capital budget items.

"We're paying for the financing of local park projects, zoos [Cincinnati]. The Wilds, a sprawling open lands endangered species complex in southeast Ohio, alone gets $1 million a year.

All of which leaves the department with about $61 million to operate with this year. The lion's share, nearly $32 million, supports the network of 74 state parks which Ohio, unlike most other states, insists on keeping free of entry fees. On balance, Logan noted, parks were getting $40 million in fiscal 2008. Hundreds of million of dollars in maintenance backlogs and reduced services have been another result of long-term reductions.

Logan said overall for fiscal 2011, "horrible decisions" had to be made, including elimination of any general revenue for the division of geological survey and the division of natural areas and preserves.

Next year the current $61 million for operations shrinks to about $54 million. In fiscal 2008 it was $87 million, Logan said. So the crunch is obvious.

Geological survey may still be able to limp along on some federal and private grants. It also now is going to receive receipts of the salt severance tax, paid for salt mined under Lake Erie in a fashion similar to coal, oil, and natural gas severance or extraction taxes.

As for the division natural areas and preserves, its scenic rivers program is being folded into the division of watercraft, as proposed in the spring. The move includes creation of a so-called Waterways Conservation Fee [read user-fee] for canoes, kayaks, and other such hand-powered craft as rowboats and paddleboats to help offset scenic rivers costs.

But where to put oversight of the network of nature preserves remains "the tough part," Logan admits. "We're trying to find a way to make it work. The conventional wisdom that it go to [the division of] wildlife may not carry the day."

The new ODNR also eliminates the division of real estate and land management, with recreational services being folded into the parks division. Those services include planning and local grants for the Clean Ohio Trails program, the NatureWorks program for local parks, and the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The division of water is being closed down. Its canal lands program is being folded into the parks division, and a renamed division of soil and water resources - formerly soil and water conservation - is taking over the water duties. Those include dam inspection, floodplain management, stream gauges, and upground water-supply reservoirs.

But the hard part will be local replacement of much-reduced funding to county soil and water conservation districts, which at nearly $7 million was another major revenue slice of the DNR pie. Logan said that the Senate majority leadership refused to allow dollar-for-dollar matches to county districts. State funding for them will be about 80 cents to the dollar matches this year and closer to 50 cents next year.

The Senate refused an 8-cent-a-ton fee to fund oversight of coal mining, instead dedicating general-fund revenue to the task. Logan asserted that the coal industry "can afford to pay its own way," but its oversight - $1.8 million a year - instead is being paid for by general tax revenue while other programs, such as libraries, suffer.

In contrast, he added, the oil and gas industries "have stepped up to the plate" and agreed to twofold increases in fees to cover their permit and inspection programs.

A plan to allow mineral development on state park, wildlife, scenic river and other lands - primarily drilling for oil and gas - was scrapped by lawmakers.

Logan noted the plan was controversial, but suggested that any drilling would have left a far smaller footprint than opponents claimed. On the other hand, he added, it would not have provided "anywhere near the money" that proponents alleged.

Additional fee schedules were created to help underwrite several programs.

They include a drinking water well-log, a one-time $20 fee for new wells, the funds going to maintain an important data base on wells in the state.

A dam safety inspection fee, a variable amount depending on size, was created to offset some general fund losses, and an all-purpose vehicle registration fee of $25 was set to pay for dedicated APV trails, presumably in state parks and forests.



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