Sunday, May 7, 2017

Ohio Natural Resources official blasts license fee increase proponents

Obviously nervous – even apprehensive and testy – Ohio Department of Natural Resources assistant director Gary Obermiller told a group of outdoors journalists May 6th that he “wasn’t even sure he should come.”

That uncertainty arrived while addressing attendees of the Outdoor Writers of Ohio’s annual conference, held in Summit County’s Hudson.

Obermiller’s remarks were delivered during a presentation at the Ohio Division of Wildlife’s District Three (Northeast Ohio) Office in nearby Akron. They came on the heels of a recent vocal cacophony delivered by various sportsmen and conservation groups, former Wildlife Division officials and others, all of whom are requesting Departmental backing for increases to resident fishing and hunting license fees.

The Natural Resources Department all ready has stated that it backs increases in non-resident license fees, particularly for non-resident deer hunters.

However, a gap in agreement for raises for residents hunters and anglers exists between the Natural  Resources Department and at least 32 state and national sportsmen and conservation groups. And that gap is both a wide and a very deep chasm, too.

Obermiller attempted to defuse the difference though at times he seemed to stir the caldron even further; in one instance lambasting six of the Wildlife Division’s immediate past living chiefs for publically supporting resident license fee increases.

In effect, Obermiller said, the now-retired slate of former Wildlife Division chiefs lacked in championing via their joint communiqué the fee increase proposal since license sales not only stagnated during their respective watches, but declined.

“Sometimes by double digits,” Obermiller said, who then hastily added “(But) I’m not blaming them.”

Obermiller also says that a culture unique to the Wildlife Division exists and is one that has not always been helpful – an oft-times stated position in the media and by bystanders who regularly observe the agency.

Yet that culture seems to have soured, say some within the Wildlife Division who are fearful of expressing themselves publically.

“The Division of Wildlife has always operated at a distance (from the Natural Resources Department) more than any other division,” Obermiller said, adding that both the Natural Resources Department and the Wildlife Division have “always had morale problems.”

As for the nearly three dozen groups now supporting increases to resident angler and hunter license fees, Obermiller dismissed their joint assembly on the issue out of hand. He even questioned whether the various groups – including Ducks Unlimited, the National Wild Turkey Federation, the Columbus-based Sportsman’s Alliance and others – had polled their membership regarding resident license fee increases or whether the decision came just from the groups’ “leadership.”

“And what about the sportsmen who don’t belong to these groups; do they agree or disagree with a license fee increase?” Obermiller rhetorically asked. “I don’t know.”

When pressed that such a stand is similar to the tactic employed by various anti-Second Amendment organizations against the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun lobbying efforts, Obermiller angrily denied such an analogy.

“Any (license fee increase) should be a last resort,” Obermiller said also. “Just to say you’re operating on 2003 dollars is not enough.”

Asked, however, just how many organized groups have publically stated their support for the Natural Resources Department’s position, Obermiller said it is not the agency’s “job go out and garner support.”

Along those lines Obermiller seemed to have ignited the spark that has generated the Natural Resources Department’s main thrust against resident hunting and fishing license fee increases.

It is the Department’s position, said Obermiller, that not only did the fee increase proponents catch the agency’s off guard as to the request for the hikes but that they failed to explain in any detail exactly where the additional revenue would be spent.

Similarly Obermiller said he is unsure of exactly how many commissioned officers the Wildlife Division is lacking – including officers assigned to counties, and whether the agency even needs money for additional land acquisition.

“I don’t have a good handle on that,” Obermiller said.

To illustrate the Department’s unwavering support for the Wildlife Division, Obermiller also not only reiterated but emphasized that the Natural Resources Department has absolutely no intent nor desire to create a unified law enforcement command that would enfold the Wildlife Division’s commissioned officers with Park rangers, Forestry agents, and Watercraft officers.

“I can’t make it any clearer: ‘We are not going down that road,’” Obermiller said.

And the Department has championed the goal of the Wildlife Division to seek ownership of at least some of the AEP land in southeast Ohio – an extremely popular public hunting and fishing area owned by a private mineral extraction company who is poised to sell off thousands of acres of land.

 “We have no interest in the Wildlife Division struggling or failing,” Obermiller said. “To think otherwise is ridiculous. I can’t recall any time when Wildlife didn’t come to us that we haven’t helped.”

Besides, said Obermiller, perhaps a non-resident fee increase might prove ample in solving any fiscal problems that the Wildlife Division may be encountering now or may encounter in the short or long term.

However, the future of the Wildlife Division’s District One (Central Ohio) office does remain on the table Obermiller says.

- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn

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