Wednesday, March 16, 2011

ODNR officials work the budget teleconference phone

In a wide-ranging teleconference Wednesday with members of the media, officials with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources presented their case for the proposed 2012 and 2013 state General Revenue Fund operating budgets.

While answers were provided the discussion also left a series of unanswered - and still unanswerable - questions.

Agency officials did say, however, that its budget reflects an opportunity to still provide the needs of the public while fulfilling the Kasich Administration’s stated goal of fiscal responsibility.

Those needs may be met - in part - by such activities as plumbing for fossil fuels through the environmentally controversial practice of hydro-fracturing, or “fracking” for short, on state park property.

Likewise, agency officials said the department wants to “partner” with like-affiliated local entities such as county metro parks. When asked specifically if that includes deeding Cleveland Lakefront State Park to Cleveland Metroparks, ODNR deputy director Scott Zody said “everything is on the table.”

Zody and Natural Resources director David Mustine said that any royalties gleaned from mineral/fossil fuel activities on state park property would go into a trust fund. From this fund the Ohio Division of Parks and Recreation could tap, using the profits to help arrest on-going maintenance shortcomings, Zody and Mustine said.

However, the Natural Resources Department officials were unable to answer which state park lands might be subjected to mineral exploitation, how much fossil fuel reserves are available or how much in royalty payments might become available for the trust fund.

Thus, the public and state legislators remain in the dark as to the consequences, costs and true benefits of such activity. That is a point Zody and Mustine noted, saying that the initiate remains a work in progress.

Also, the Division of Parks and Recreation is assuming management of the state nature preserves system.

“ODNR will be proposing Income Tax Checkoff language, consistent with previous language, that will allow the fund to benefit both preserves and parks,” an official e-mailed The News-Herald just prior to the teleconference.

“We hope this will attract more donations for both programs — funding will benefit the same types of activities (ecomanagement, habitat management, facilities improvement, research, education and land acquisition) as has been historically funded by these donations.”

One specific subject the officials did address was the Natural Resources Department’s plans to “zero out” state money previously given to Ohio’s 88 county soil and water conservation districts, among them being those in Lake, Geauga, Cuyahoga, Lorain and Ashtabula counties.

Not discussed during the teleconference, however, was that the spending authority of both the divisions of Wildlife and Watercraft will decline under Kasich’s budget plans even though these entities have the cash on hand.

On the matter of timbering in the state forest system, the Natural Resources Department officials pointed out that some of that work goes on now.

Presently, 7 million to 8 million board feet of lumber is being taken off state forests and may go up another 1 million to 1.5 million board feet. Under the sustainable certification, up to 50 percent of the potentially harvestable lumber can be removed, Zody said.

“But we’re only at 15 to 20 percent,” he said. “We could ramp that up without harming any sustainable harvesting and we might consider it.”

Asked as well how the Natural Resources Department fared when compared to other cabinet departments, Mustine said he was focused solely on his area.

When pressed, however, Mustine noted that the Natural Resource Department collects less than one-percent of the state’s General Revenue Fund. That means that other departments - on a total dollar basis - fared worse than did the ODNR, Mustine said.

And asked too how the Natural Resources Department’s constituencies - particularly those who use state parks - might view these proposals, Mustine said; “This is something that our divisions are focused on, to absorb the cuts and still (provide) a quality experience."

- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn

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