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Published: Sunday, 6/12/2011

Wildlife conservation at risk under H.B. 133

BY STEVE POLLICK
BLADE OUTDOORS COLUMNIST

Millions of dollars in sportsmen’s federal reimbursement funds to Ohio for wildlife conservation and management programs are being jeopardized by House Bill 133, a public lands, oil, and gas drilling bill being fast-tracked through the Republican-controlled General Assembly at the behest of Gov. John Kasich.

Specifically, H.B. 133 would allow leasing state land — parks and such — for oil and gas exploration and drilling. Among other things, it would establish an oil and gas leasing commission — to be appointed by the pro-drill governor, of course — and would require state lands be classified into four categories with an eye making more available for drilling.

The bill has been approved by the House and is in the Senate Agriculture, Environment, and Natural Resources Committee. Statehouse observers said the bill is moving ahead quickly, should see little opposition in the Senate, and should be ready for the governor’s signature by month’s end.

The Columbus-based sporting lobby, the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance, is complaining that despite repeated assurances the bill would be fixed to protect sportsmen’s interests, it still contains language that could take away the Ohio Division of Wildlife’s authority to manage state hunting and wildlife lands and would threaten millions of sportsmen’s dollars that are used for wildlife conservation in the state.

Language added to the bill in the House would require state agencies to take steps to reclassify lands to make it easier for the commission to lease them. What the drill-baby-drill Kasich administration wants is to have as much as possible of the 170,000 acres of land that the state wildlife division manages to be declared as having no federal interests and encumbrances.

But wildlife lands currently are classified as having some federal interest because they are, at least in part, managed through federal Pittman-Robertson [P-R] or Dingell-Johnson/Wallop-Breaux [D-J] funds. Some brief background:

The P-R/D-J funds are annual reimbursements to states of hefty federal excise taxes paid by manufacturers of hunting and fishing equipment, some $400 million a year nationwide. The D-J money, through Wallop/Breaux, also returns a small percentage of the motorboat fuel tax to states for fisheries, based on use of boats for fishing.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service disburses these funds to the states for wildlife and fisheries projects and management, based on the numbers of hunting and fishing licenses sold per state. The program has performed like aces for decades, a pillar for state fish and wildlife agencies to lean on to fill out their typical user-pay budgets.

Thus the reason wildlife lands are classified as having a federal interest is the use of P-R and D-J money for their management. “The only way to reclassify them is to say ‘no’ to the [federal] money,” said Jeremy Rine, USSA associate director of state services. “We’re calling the troops out.”

The Ohio Division of Wildlife receives some $22 million a year in hunting and fishing excise tax disbursements, $8.5 million in P-R funds and $13.5 million in D-J funds. It is a substantial portion of the division’s annual budget of some $60 million.

“The fix [to H.B. 133] is to remove the requirement to reclassify lands,” said Rine. He added that USSA has “no problem” with oil and gas leasing, and in fact state law already allows the state wildlife division to lease its lands for oil and gas production. Some wildlife lands, he added, already have wells. But USSA contends the wildlife division must retain control over where and when that drilling occurs.

Indeed — and the division itself must be held accountable by hunters and anglers for any further drilling it plans to do.

H.B. 133 could be voted out of the Senate Agriculture, Environment, and Natural Resources as early as next Tuesday. The USSA is urging sportsmen to call or e-mail their state senators and the Senate Agriculture, Environment, and Natural Resources Committee.

The committee chairman is State Sen. Cliff Hite [R., Findlay], 614-466-8150, or e-mail sd01@senate.state.oh.us. To find your state senator’s contact information, visit online at www.ohiosenate.gov.

Commentary: What is going on with H.B. 133 is typical of what transpires when politicians engage in the “fast-tracked” legislative quickies. These often are fraught with all sorts of poorly thought out “oops” provisions that come back to bite the public.

For decades and across administrations and legislatures dominated by both political stripes, Ohio’s natural resources have gotten short shrift. Except in those state divisions such as wildlife and watercraft, which essentially are funded by user fees [licenses, permits, registrations], most divisions of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources usually find themselves fed table scraps at the end of the food line come budget-making time in the State House.

Indeed, the ODNR division of natural areas and preserves is all but gone, its duties farmed out across other divisions. Plans are afoot to remove its traces from state law altogether, as if at least leaving it “on the books” in hopes of resurrecting it in better times is somehow costing anything. This is a slap in the face to the memory of the late Gov. James Rhodes, under whose watch “D-NAP” was established. A small determined citizens group is lobbying to keep the division intact at least on legal paper.

The Kasich administration also wants to double timber cuts on state forests, again to increase revenue to plug budget holes. As if long-standing forest management policies and practices have been too conservative and suddenly make no sense. Cut, baby, cut.

The issue of oil and gas drilling on parks and other state lands — this in a state where 94 percent of all land is privately owned already and most owners can do what they please — already has been discussed here. If hydrofracking is so innocuous, why hasn’t the state gone out of its way to explain its pleasantries, line by line, beginning to end, and short-circuit any supposedly spurious environmental concerns? Because drilling is a dirty job, no matter what, and not nearly as pretty or painless as the smooth-tongued industry platitudes would make it seem.

It’s your aquifer, your stream, that is on the line.

In the end what we have with the coming of the Kasich administration, with cooperation from the legislature, is a sea-change in the way we regard our state’s natural resources.

Minerals, forests, wildlife, water, land — all are being reduced to mere commodity status in a mad dash to scrabble together revenue to offset decades of irresponsible budgetary decisions. Yet even the most optimistic revenue projections from this proposed fire sale of natural resources are driblets in face of the whopping $55 billion state budget.

Natural resources no longer are part of a natural heritage to be husbanded for future generations, to be conserved and used only wisely with an eye to “optimum,” not “maximum” use. No, now the philosophy is use ‘em up, may ‘em pay, now. Speed of business and all that. That kind of attitude has gotten lots of civilizations in trouble. Too bad trees can’t vote.

Contact Steve Pollick at spollick@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.



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